Possessing That Which Was Mine

A few weeks ago there was an op-ed piece in the Sunday Times by Ann Patchett entitled “My Year of No Shopping.”  It was one of those wonderful instances where the title told you exactly what the article was about, and Ms. Patchett did actually spend a year without purchasing anything but necessities (and books, but this aside might be redundant) and without perusing catalogs, tramping through malls, or (and this might be the chief benefit) surfing the internet. Now, Ms. Patchett is only fifty-four years old, young to be thinking about trimming her sails (see Emerson poem here), but wise enough to know that there must be a time to step back. Ann Patchett finds many of the things that she thinks she “needs” somewhere in the house – for example, she unearths enough lip balm and face cream to last the duration. But she finds other things, too – such as a renewed appreciation for what she already has – and a ton of time to think about and do other things.

As we age in this era of technology, information, and consumerism, there is a constant pressure to keep up – not to be the old lady who not only has no idea about all the things her iPhone can do, but has one that is five generations old. I thought about this quite a bit a while back, in a way that overlaps with the methodology and reasoning of Ms. Patchett. And I did what I often do when I am mulling something over – I wrote a story. “Nothing New,” is attached here. I have not practiced what my protagonist resolves at the end of the story, but I have become more conscious and reflective about what new things I take into my life. And if you continue to read my blog about life and aging, you will realize I believe more in reflection than I do in action and more in retrospective contemplation than I do in further mental accumulation. More on this later.

This may evoke Philip Larkin’s sentiments in “Winter Palace”: “Most people know more as they get older; / I give all that the cold shoulder.” My motivations are slightly different than Mr. Larkin’s, however. Mine are more akin to those of Borges’ prisoner “The God’s Script,” who has no access to the new and is thrown back on what he already knows:

Impelled by the fatality of having something to do, of populating time in some way, I tried, in my darkness, to recall all I knew…. Gradually, in this way, I subdued the passing years; gradually, in this way, I came into possession of that which was already mine.

And, unlike Ann Patchett, I might also limit books. In another one of Borges’ stories, a wise man from the future tells a man from the past that “it is not the reading that matters, but the re-reading.” As we age, we cannot possibly keep up with the best seller lists, recommendations, treasures in the remainder pile. As Ecclesiastes reminds us: “Of making many books there is no end.” But there is an end to life and there is a time for review and reflection – and, perhaps, for a limit to the new.

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