Robbie Low muses among the packing cases
Moving, I have concluded, is like drowning. The whole of your life passes before you in a relatively brief time which, paradoxically, seems to last for ever. It’s a bit like fasting but while fasting alerts me to the Pavlovian response to meal times and the raging tyranny of the body for calorific comfort, so moving lays bare my slavery to the material.
Fifteen years in the same house with no systematic cathartic clear out leaves me staring at a mountain. No wonder people who have lived in the same house for forty years prefer to die there and leave the problem to somebody else.
OK, there is the easy stuff, the unarguable clutter which no sane member of the family will defend. But after a dozen small van loads I became an intimate of the workmen at the council tip if only to persuade them that I was a genuine householder and not some small scale professional waste service. ‘Only one load per day sir’, I was eventually informed. Where did it all come from?
Then there is the next layer. Stuff in reasonable condition but no-one is attached to it. We have no retail outlet and the next church bazaar is several months away. We became substantial weekly donors to the local charity shops – always in another town lest someone spot me unloading their well-meant gift. The volunteers thank us profusely but not as profusely as we thank them for lightening our burden.
And when all that is done there are the books. I used to read about priests who had libraries of 5,000+ books in utter disbelief. Somehow in the last 25 years I have become one of them. The reality of the new house is that only 3,000 can go with us and that only by shelving everything but the bathroom.
Have I read all the 5,000? Not all of them, but most. Do I dispose of the books I have never read first or the old friends that have led me thus far and to whom I may yet need to turn again? It’s not really a question. But the unread are a minute fraction. So it is books to the parish library, books to friends, books to dealers, books to serious collectors who are as delighted as I am quietly distressed by my sacrifice. Eighty boxes stubbornly remain. Twenty of them will have to go into the pending tray which is the garage of the little house we are moving to along with ancient family furniture too big to use, too sentimental to sell – at least for a while longer.
And clothes? Well, clothes are easier. I have spent my working life in uniform and consequently do not possess a large wardrobe. Any surplus I have accrued is regularly dealt with by the gentlemen of the road, regular visitors to my door. Clothes washed, clothes replaced, unwanted jumpers, old shoes, coats, the cheap shirt bought and never worn, now more widely travelled than their original owner.
But what of the nostalgic items, the clothes in a spare drawer no longer worn but associated with key moments of my life, the first date, the first mass, the wedding etc. No, they travel with us to be stored in the new loft and to be disposed of by our children years hence, dv, with scarcely a glance or a question, I suspect.
But then there is just the sheer weight of things. It might come in useful. We’ll only have to buy another one. How can we possibly have that many mugs/plates/glasses? No, I know I haven’t ridden that bike for 30 years! That’s a perfectly good fish tank and he may want to take up the hobby again. Yes, every single one of those extraordinary ornaments was a present from good friends. We just have different tastes. It is, of course, much easier to part with gifts from the living than gifts from the dead.
My office has a filing system to rival the Civil Service. Even if I write my memoirs I shall not need this much. Thirty years bank statements and tax returns is excessive. I’d bin them and discover that I should have kept the last seven. Too late. Executor of a will 27 years ago, I still have the file. Ridiculous! Bin! But before the bin is the re-reading. The people, places, family, friends, childhood home come flooding back before me in an emotional parade. Without these papers I had forgotten so much and now they will be filed for the last time.
The trouble is it is like that with everything I touch. My memories are not bound up in these things but these things too often hold the key. Each memory is unique, tattooed on the circuits of my skull but only recalled by diminishing triggers. A snatch of music, a smile, an old faded letter, a file, a box of baby teeth and the past lies open before me.
I shall not, in all likelihood, recall this much again in this life. I must accept that nostalgia must not overwhelm the present, the existential present, the eternal now of God. I shall have all eternity to recall and much, no doubt, I shall not wish to. Besides, unnamed or unnumbered, all of it travels with me somehow.
So at times I sit in the middle of a room of memories steeling myself to be ruthless. If I could walk out of here with my family, our health, our freedom and my Bible, I should be a rich man. Everything else is a bonus – most of it is superfluous.
But it’s hard.
Today, as I move on, I have the choice. What to strip away, what to cling to? What is essential memorial, what is cloying nostalgia or simple materialism? There will come a time when the choice is taken from me. I will have, and know I have as for the first time, only what God gives me, the living memorial.
‘Do this in remembrance of me’, the priest, the icon of Christ, will intone as the consecration takes place. And it is here that I will meet all the faithful, the living and dead, as I have always done, his people and mine in the real and abiding presence. The priest will elevate the bread of life and infuse my little needful dying past and failing present with the eternal now of God who was and is and is to come. All other signs and memories and keepsakes fade before this immanent reminder and transcendent reality.
The next move, then, will be very different. I shall need to take nothing with me but this.