The Fantasy of The Snail

11 Apr



Reading Annamal’s blog got me thinking about stuff. I mean things. You know, material possessions. Crap. I have an interesting (and listening to her write about it, probably woefully under-explored) relationship with stuff.

When I was a kid, I had this totally impossible fantasy of having one room, my bedroom if you like, which I could keep in my pocket or summon to me whenever I liked. That room would have everything in it that I really, truly cared about or needed. It wouldn’t have to be a terribly large room, though it might be a bit overstuffed. When I had that, I wouldn’t need anything else. I would be able to walk around totally unencumbered, but also totally unconcerned. I could carry my little safe space and all my things with me like a snail carried its shell.

I come from hoarders. Not my parents – for all their angst about it, our house was always pretty reasonable. Full but not bursting. It was clean and bright, and most things were piled neatly on shelves. But my father’s family, particularly my uncle and grandmother, were always amazing hoarders. I think it would be hard for most people to actually envision what my uncle’s apartment looked like. It was pretty big for New York, two stories. You couldn’t see the walls in most places. My uncle used to be a trapper and there were pelts and skeletons lining the walls, dreamcatchers, statues of wolves, action figures, steel cages, twenty year old plastic snow globes from Coney Island. It felt like some combination of being in a hunter’s cave and the inside of someone’s pocket. It was incredibly dark.

My grandmother was somewhat more reasonable; she hoarded the way grandmothers do, oversaturating their house with jewelry and lace. When she died, the stuff become an enormous factor for the family to contend with. I won’t go into that whole tawdry story, because it isn’t the point. Suffice it to say, some of it came to me. Mostly things everyone thought I should have, as the female grandchild. The major items were five or six jewelry boxes, stuffed not just with the delicate, classy things that were her mainstay, but also with broken beads, bits of glass, and plastic bracelets.

I kept every single one.

About 5 or 6 years ago, I wrote this about it: A watch of mine broke today. It meant more to me than anyone can imagine who hasn’t seen someone they loved reduced from a human being to an epigram and pile of small objects whose only merit is that the person you miss touched them day to day. There’s something precious in the belongings of the dead, some stamp of routine that added rice-paper layers to the thing, building up an essence which resounds just below the surface, unnoticed until the source is gone, like a candle in front of the sun.  

I still feel that way in a general sense, even though I’ve learned that you shouldn’t, can’t, imbue every little bit of detritus with meaning. I have similar urges with objects I found during particularly happy or sad times in my life – I think in hoarding there’s always some desire to stop time and keep things that can’t be kept. My little snail fantasy as a kid was rooted in a fear that I would lose all the things I loved if I wasn’t looking at them right now, along with a desire to no longer be burdened by looking.

I used to get into panics, as a wee one, if I couldn’t remember where I’d put some arbitrary object. It wasn’t that the object was particularly special to me, just that I would suddenly not know where Nippy the Cat was and the not-knowing terrified me. There was an inexplicably existential panic associated with losing or destroying things for me. Getting over this was very liberating and very necessary, but there are probably still some objects in the world that could trigger it.

I also always thought everything might be useful later. I hated waste with the sort of illogical, over-applied hate of an environmentalist’s daughter, and I thought I was a tiny MacGyver.  I always wanted to be prepared – the paper clip could be a lockpick if I was trapped somewhere! I could fold the receipt into a swan! Don’t throw that string away, what if you are in a situation where you desperately need string!? The pockets of every winter jacket I ever owned broke with the weight of the things inside them, pouring paper clips, mints, and scraps of paper into the lining.

In college, when I started playing RPGs, I indulged both impulses even as I tried to shed them IRL. RPGs are kinder than life and let you do that; my character needs this many things to do his job, to define himself, and they are all in his pockets all the time. My characters are all snails in a way that people rarely can be. They have always lost almost everything, irrevocably. Thus they have few enough possessions that what they do have all fits in their pockets, backpacks, or maybe a car. This way nothing can ever be taken from them again, until they die, and they’re always as ready as they’ll ever be.

In a manner of speaking, my bedroom back in the house I grew up in is my real life little snail shell. Or maybe more like a hermit crab shell, since I abandoned it to live in a new one? But it still has all my things in it, sorted into neat piles. I have a very visual memory and I can navigate through it in my head, remember which of grandma’s necklaces is in the enameled wood jewelry box with the flowers on it, sitting on the third shelf down on the southern wall. Every object there is a touchstone in the house of memory. Occasionally my mother moves something and when I return, things aren’t exactly the way they were before and I’m not sure if or why it matters. Also like memory.

I don’t clutter my current shell the way I did my old one. Partly I have Squiddy to thank for this. She will look at my pockets full of ticket stubs and all the tiny plastic animals on the shelves and ask me if I really need to save them, and nowadays that’s usually all it takes to get me to say no and throw them out. Also, I’m a cheapskate. I mean this as a good thing – I don’t kick up a fun-killing fuss about it, but I don’t like spending money, except maybe on experiences. So I own fewer things and I feel a bit lighter.

Sometimes I forget all my good intentions and get unduly upset about damage to one of my things – I’m still capable of being unreasonably upset that cups break and clothes tear – but more often I know that the things that matter can fit in my pockets if they have to. But I also know that room at home exists. Sometimes, instead of throwing something out, I take it back home and leave it there instead. I haven’t even seen some of the stuff in there for years. Maybe I don’t even want to see it, just to know that it’s there.


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