August 24, 1992. A pivotal day in my life and that of countless others. A tropical depression in the Caribbean morphed into a hurricane. It hovered over south Florida and took with it, life and property. It was one of the most intense and damaging ever seen. Hurricane Andrew made landfall and we were at Ground Zero, next to the Homestead Naval Airbase.
We had just purchased our new home and had no equity in it; we couldn’t afford to sell it and relocate once again. I mused about being able to move back north. This was clearly one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations, thinking I should have been careful to clarify “clean, neat, easy and safe way.” Our house became uninhabitable and within six months, my wish was granted and another turning point transplanted us back to beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania, an hour outside of Philadelphia. The biggest blessing is that we (my husband, son, our dog, cat, rabbit and I) were safe.
After the flood waters receded, we sorted through the rubble and were able to retrieve some of what we valued. As publishers of Visions Magazine, from 1988-1998, we salvaged back copies that featured notables on the cover, such as Ben & Jerry, Shirley MacLaine, Bernie Siegel, Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, Dennis Weaver, Ram Dass, and Olympia Dukakis. Although they were wet, and some pages were stuck together, they are potent reminders of the love and energy we put into the publication for 10 years.
For his birthday, my parents and I gave my husband a Peace Pole which is a 6-foot-tall obelisk that has the message, “May peace prevail on Earth,” inscribed on it in four languages. It had been in the back yard and survived the torrential rains and tumultuous winds. It followed us back to our new home in Pennsylvania in 1993. My then 5-year-old son was able to reclaim his iridescent green parachute material snake, aptly named “Snakey.” Books, music, instruments, and photographs were lost. Our furniture, clothing, most pieces of jewelry, and household décor went the way of all winds.
As resilient thrivers, we seemed to bounce back well. We had a place to go, as we stayed with my parents for a few weeks and moved temporarily to an apartment and then our new home in Pennsylvania. We had support from family and friends and our larger community. One major benefit was comprehensive insurance coverage that allowed us to replace the material goods to start anew.
Although these things matter, I am not attached to possessions, with few exceptions. On my left pinkie, I wear the ring passed on to me by my mother who died in 2010, given to her by my grandmother who died when I was four. When I look at it, it is like having them both with me. Journals are precious as they highlight 40 years of life experience; yes, I have been writing in them since college. I have more books than any other type of item in my eclectically decorated home. When I gaze around in each room, I behold things received as gifts from loved ones and some I purchased for myself. They enhance my life and remind me of my connection with the people who gave them to me.
What prompted this inquiry was the NPR show 1A on November 27, 2018. The topic was The Things That Matter Most and it highlighted the innate or imbued value of the keepsakes. Joshua Johnson’s dedicated, and knowledgeable guests were: Jennifer Battle, a Hurricane Harvey survivor and program director of crisis services at The Harris Center, Christian Burgess, director of Disaster Distress Helpline in Houston, and Bill Shapiro, author of the book What We Keep.
Each of them offered wise guidance for ways we see our belongings as extensions of ourselves, memories can’t be replaced, certain items provide comfort, and offer a sense of connection to our past and the people in it. Most people who lose belongings, whether through natural or human made disaster, would say that the financial value of the items is far outweighed by the sentimental value.
It was echoed by Bill Shapiro who shared, “Our hearts are not accountants. We choose the meaning, not the monetary.”
Someone who called in to the show says that well-meaning people remind us, “It’s just stuff,” which is meant to comfort, but instead, minimizes the impact. The reality is, per the caller, “It’s my stuff.” Just as no one should tell someone grieving the loss of a child, that they have other children or can have other children, so too is in inadvisable to tell someone that everything is replaceable. For some, the feeling is that of losing an aspect of our identity and a link to loved ones and family legacy.
If you had two minutes to leave, what would you take with you?
I would take my medications, the little black box with my passport, family birth certificates and other important papers, my laptop since it is my work tool, cell phone, car keys, wallet. Those are the practical items. Interestingly, the things I retained following the hurricane are expendable as are my treasured book. The ring isn’t.
I inquired of people in my life what their treasured items are and how they would feel if they lost them. This is the feedback I received:
“My Mom’s wedding band; always wear it on my pinky…a tangible connection to her.”
“I think an interesting angle on this topic is photography, more specifically how most pictures are now digital. I’m in a weird space where I have both printed family photo albums and digital albums. Both are just as precious, yet I think the digital ones are more fragile. It only takes one computer crash to lose so many memories.”
“My most prized possession is a small Christmas tag Dad put on a gift to Mom on their first Christmas as husband & wife — 1936, in the heart of the Depression. “Such a small thing to express so much in my heart.”
“My oldest daughter is a very emotional and sentimental child and has things like stuffed animals and keepsakes that she cherishes. When she can’t find them, she is beside herself. I’m not attached to things. I know things are fluid and always changing — maybe it stems from my occupation.” (a nurse)
“Things that I love a great deal because they remind me of people that gave them to me or owned them before me, but I’m not attached to anything in a way that it would hurt me if it was gone.”
“I have told my children that when I leave this earth, only two things-are of value to me, two rings that were my mother’s. Not valuable in money ways. And family photos. One ring is on my finger always. They can take everything else to the Goodwill. I am not attached to possessions. And the other ring is in a secret place in my place!”
I will close with a poem by Jellaludin Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.