Erin's Everyday Thoughts

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What Matters

Photo: Although this isn't my stuffed bear,
it is one of his cousins.

A recent entry in Beth’s Front Porch ( got me thinking about what it is that really matters. Beth asked the question—In the event of fire, assuming your loved ones are safe, what’s the first thing you’d take with you?

As I began to consider this question, I realized it was a difficult choice, but not for the reason I would have expected it to be difficult. Instead of thinking of too many things I’d like to take, I thought of too few. Each thing I considered seemed very replaceable. Clothes? I like them a great deal, but I feel no important attachment to them. Electronics, CDs, DVDs? Same deal. Even books are replaceable, although I would miss some well-worn favorites.

The items that made my Top 5 were:
1) My computer, which is full of the stories, poems, and essays I’ve written since high school (and conveniently easy to take along, as it’s a laptop)
2) My jewelry box, not for its financial worth but for its emotional worth—birthday gifts, graduation gifts, Christmas gifts from those I love
3) My journals, 10+ years of my life (mood, idea, experience) recorded
4) My photo boxes
5) My favorite stuffed bear (although a recent acquisition, he means a great deal to me)

Each of these things has either creative or emotional value to me. These are the material possessions that document my past and that hold the most value for me in the present. And still, looking through the list one by one, I could imagine doing without each and every one. Although in losing my jewelry, photo boxes, and stuffed bear, I would lose things that are dear to me … although in losing my computer and journals, I would lose a path of creative thought … I could still rebuild, and I would rebuild.

It’s amazing how much time and money people (myself included!) spend on the acquisition of things when what really matters (at least to me) has nothing to do with things. It has to do with relationships, family, friends, and experiences. It has to do with what you put into life each day, not what things surround you. (As a quick disclaimer, I will admit that I like things. And I do think that things can be inspiring, moving, motivational. They can bring great joy and awaken creativity. But perhaps they can also always be replaced with other things that would serve the same purpose.)

As for what I would take with me in the imaginary fire, I finally settled on my computer, although as soon as I’d decided, I began to doubt. I remembered a story from when I was living in Pennsylvania several years ago (sorry Beth, I already wrote this in your blog!). While there, I visited once or twice with a writing group at a local library. One of the girls in the group had recently finished a writing graduate program in somewhere like California, and on the day she was set to go home, her car (packed up with all of her worldly possessions, computer included) was stolen. She described how she’d kept everything she’d written on that computer, and how she had to start writing from scratch. She told us it was scary, but that it was also somehow freeing. Being forced to start fresh also forced her to have fresh ideas, instead of continuing to mull over the starts and stops of stories and poems she’d already created. It was a great loss, certainly, but she was able to move through it and on to other work. She turned an unfortunate situation into an opportunity for growth.

As it happens, synchronicity kicked in again this week. As I was pondering all of these things—material possessions, why they do matter, why they don’t matter, and then what really does matter—I received this quote via e-mail list serve:

"Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing."

--William Butler Yeats

And I said—that’s it! When it comes down to it, what matters most to me is the people I love (who are protected in this hypothetical fire) and the opportunity to grow (as the girl in the writing group did, as I would do regardless of what possessions I lost). The past (my journals, writings, and life) creates a base for growth, a point from which to start, but I could start from anywhere—even the basement—and grow up to the attic and beyond! No fire can touch this. No wonder I had trouble choosing something to rescue from the flames!

So now, what matters to you?


  • Hi Erin, This is a hard entry for me to respond to. The thought of a fire destroying my home is troubling to me and trying to decide what I'd save is more troubling still. It's hard for me to look at the situation as game or abstraction, so I find myself thoroughly torn. I know the first thing I would want to grab is my laptop. It has writing, photographs, and music that I'd hate to lose. Beyond that, as I look around me, I see so many things I'd like to save. I think this signals an unhealthy attachment to things that I wish I didn't have. The thought of all my books going up in flames is almost intolerable to me. I have hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars worth of books. I've accumulated quite a library! The loss of my books would be devastating, to be sure. I also have many stuffed animals from my childhood and even recently acquired ones, my Pooh, my Piglet, my little Tigger, and I have stuffed figures from Nightmare Before Christmas which were given to me by my kids. Oh dear! Erin, I have so enjoyed seeing your comments on my blog and also on others' blogs. Beth was mentioning to me in a recent e-mail how much she enjoys your entries and your comments. We both do. Keep going.

    By Blogger Theresa Williams, at 3:12 AM  

  • Erin, I liked your comment very much on my blog, and I like your entry. I though my own was a little unfinished, in that the weird thing now is I feel like I could just walk out and leave everything behind. What matters is in my head and heart. And sometimes I don't even know what's there! Do you think this is weird? It's sort of a calm, peaceful feeling. ~Beth

    By Blogger beths front porch, at 7:45 PM  

  • Very thought-provoking entry, Erin, and I love how you have expressed your thoughts. Like I said to Beth, I am going to steal your idea and do my own entry on this!

    Love, Vicky

    By Blogger Vicky, at 11:32 PM  

  • Hi, everyone! Thanks so much for your comments. I so enjoy reading your blogs and seeing your comments on mine!

    Theresa, I actually added the disclaimer about the value of things with you in mind. I know how you are moved by the objects that you collect here and there, and I feel that way, too, although I think not as strongly.

    Beth, I don't think it's weird at all--either the detachment to things or the fact that it's tricky to figure out what's in your heart and head. I think that's what keeps life interesting--if you knew exactly what to expect from yourself in each situation and exactly what you thought and felt about each thing, what would there be to discover? Also, I often think that I would feel "calmer" if I really pared down my belongings and got to the bare essentials--not so many distractions and complications!

    Vicky, thank you! I'll have to pop over and check out your entry soon. :-)

    By Blogger Erin, at 9:02 AM  

  • Erin, I was very moved by your response, moved that you thought of me when you were doing your entry, remembering how attached I am to objects. I have been that way since I was very little. Once, a friend of mine lost a treasured toy of mine, a little plastic mountain goat called "Oddie," and it left a huge hole in me. I never forgot that toy! I did an entry about Oddie in my old AOL Journal. Also, when people give me gifts, those gifts, those objects take on the aura of the giver and they become very precious to me. Like every book you have ever given me, Erin, and the jewelry. I wear the handmade jewelry you gave me all the time and think of you. It would hurt me to lose those. Part of me thinks this extreme form of attachment is unhealthy, but so far there is nothing I have been able to do about it. Thank you, Erin, for your thoughts.

    By Blogger Theresa Williams, at 2:50 AM  

  • I just found your blog via Paula, and see that we have other writing firends in common. And there seem to be a number of Ohioans around here! Anyway. . . I've enjoyed what I've read, and I'll be back.

    By Blogger Gannet Girl, at 4:59 PM  

  • Opps, today's track was via Beth! Credit where credit is due.

    By Blogger Gannet Girl, at 5:00 PM  

  • Theresa--I very much treasure the gifts I receive, too. I recently let a friend of mine borrow my copy of Nine Stories, which was a gift from you years ago. He had it for a long while before he finally returned it, and I was so relieved to get it back! I would have hated to lose that!

    Although I still think things are just things, I think part of my detached attitude toward them lately comes from the fact that I'm currently reading Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE. It's hard to feel attached to mere things when I'm caught up in that world of deprivation and despair.

    By Blogger Erin, at 12:21 PM  

  • I, too, am reading THE JUNGLE (Erin and I are in a book club together), and I have been feeling the same way about all the posessions. I look around my place and think of how hard it would have been, even 100 years ago, to accumulate the amount of STUFF I have right now, so I feel blessed and even overly cluttered at that. But I agree with Theresa - every one of my things is something I cherish for the memories it evokes. And if you give me the chance, I will pull out each thing and show it to you, and talk about it and what it means to me, until finally you will be exhausted and leave my place, never to return. So I would be devastated to lose those things. And at the same time, I find myself wondering if I really would be devastated, or if I am too attached to these things that don't really reflect who I am or what my life has been. I am figuratively torn in two over this idea. Ah, the angst.

    By Blogger e_doe, at 4:07 PM  

  • Erin, thanks for visiting! My PEI travel series starts on February 19. There are various interruptions along the way.

    By Blogger Gannet Girl, at 4:46 PM  

  • I've avoided coming here, reading this entry, because all the "hypothetical fire" entries have disturbed me to one degree or another and I've not felt ready to face what I was feeling. When you go through a tragedy that is not hypothetical (in my case, a tornado) you know that the answer comes down to this: you run for your life. Even if your hypothetical loved ones are hypothetically safe, you run to them and you find them, and you grab hold of them--you check a hundred, a thousand times to be sure that they are safe and alive even though they are already in your arms. You are consumed with the adrenaline running through your veins, the heart that is beating outrageously against your ribcage, and there is not one single thing left behind that even crosses your mind, not even later, not even five years later when you're looking for something you can't find and then remember that it's gone but know that it's okay, that it doesn't matter, that it never mattered.

    I was pleased and relieved to find this entry, Erin, for reasons that are more than personal. And I'd like to add to you and to all that there WAS one thing that survived the tornado, and it was the very thing that most people mentioned: it was the box of journals that I'd been keeping since I was eleven years old, every one of them not even wet, safe between the pieces of two walls that had collapsed against each other and shielded them the way a mother might shield her child. A miracle? Maybe so, in its own way. But hard to call it that when my husband was lying in a hospital bed smashed to pieces, not one part of his body unscathed.

    Self reflection and self assessment is important, don't get me wrong, and I likely sound bitter in this response though that's not what I feel, or not exactly. It's just that there is so much before us in our real lives that the hypothetical really does become too much to imagine.

    By Blogger Paula, at 3:34 PM  

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