The ‘Beauty’ of Stuff

I was headed to graduate school in Colorado, so I stopped by my parents’ large house in a gated golf community to say goodbye. My dad saw my old Toyota and sighed, “I remember when I could fit everything I owned in my car. Man, those were the days.” 

“You guys should sell the house, buy an RV, and go cross country,” I suggested.

My dad just rolled his eyes and went inside to find my mom. She was upstairs supervising the crew they’d hired to shampoo their wall-to-wall white carpeting.

The following year, American Beauty arrived in theaters. Lester, an ineffectual suburbanite, finally rebels against his control freak wife. During a rare moment of passion, she stops Lester because she’s afraid he’ll spill his beer on their expensive sofa. 

“It’s just a couch!” Lester yells. “This isn’t life! This is just stuff, and it’s become more important to you than living, and, Honey, that’s just nuts!”

In a near-empty Boulder movie theater, I raised a fist in solidarity. “I’ll never let that happen to me,” I vowed.

After grad school, I returned to Wilmington and started teaching. I bought a modest house and filled it with Craigslist furniture and drove a decades-old car with torn seats. Growing up, I resolved, did not have to equal growing attached to things.

Fast-forward ten years. I’ve reached Lester’s age, and maybe it’s no coincidence that I may have finally stepped onto the slippery slope to American Beauty-dom. I recently bought a fancy Swedish station wagon with white leather interior. I love the car, but I worry over little scratches, and when the neighborhood kids ride their bikes too close to it, I feel the cranky urge to give them a lecture.

I can hear Lester now: “It’s just a car!” he implores. “It isn’t life!” Maybe Lester’s right. Maybe I’m nuts. If the car stresses me out, why do I own it? 

The answer finally hit me as I climbed the stairs at work – the same stairs I’ve climbed for over a decade. For the first time, my knees ached with each step. Not significant pain. Just enough to announce that their warranty is slowly running out.

My creaky knees are a small reminder of the ephemeral nature of all things. Youthful beauty fades. Children grow up and leave home. Sometimes marriages end or friends drift apart.

That’s the hard truth of life.

But with the white carpet or the expensive couch or the fancy car comes the promise that if you’re vigilant, you can keep it unblemished and pure. You might lose your job or the dog could die, but at least that one special thing remains pristine. Of course, even with perfect vigilance, time and chance will eventually work their inevitable destruction on all things, but maybe there’s a strange kind of optimism and hope – even wisdom – wrapped up in this odd impulse to pick one thing and furiously guard it against the messy chaotic world all around.

 

Dylan Patterson is a writer and filmmaker who teaches English at Cape Fear Community College.

 

To view more of illustrator Mark Weber’s work, go to www.markweberart.blogspot.com