Last week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, I posted my poem "Our Money's Worth," based on the story of trading in my aging Honda Civic for $1,500 credit. On this blog, I wrote about how I felt mostly indifferent to letting the car go, and how I viewed that reserve as a sign of hard-won wisdom. And so it was, maybe. But then, as Walt Whitman wrote, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" There is a part of me that still clings very fervently to possessions. And that was the part of me that, despite a skin hardened over decades, embarrassed itself by weeping openly in the theater at the end of Toy Story 3.
Oh, man, that scene. There may be no other five minutes in recent cinematic history more notorious for reducing grown men (and possibly a few women) to lachrymose puddles. Owen Gleiberman, a critic with tastes so rugged that he named Natural Born Killers the best film of the 1990s and criticized The Silence of the Lambs for not being dark enough, responded so emotionally to the Toy Story 3 finale that he wrote an editorial urging fellow alpha males not to be ashamed of their blubbering. If you've seen the movie (and you might as well skip to the next paragraph if you haven't), you know that I'm talking about the moment when Andy, the boy who has come of age over the first Toy Story trilogy, drives to the house of neighborhood preschooler Bonnie and leaves Buzz, Woody, Jessie, and their comrades in her care before heading off to college. It's easy enough to explain the audience's tears as Andy lovingly hands over each toy -- the end of childhood, neatly encapsulated in one gesture! -- but I wonder if that scene taps into a deeper longing for many adults. Perhaps we mourn not just the end of childhood (ours and Andy's), but also the end of the time when we viewed objects as able to exert a mystical pull?
There was a time when I found at least some toys to be enchanting, and that time is long past. I abandoned my playthings at a much earlier age than Andy does, and with no sorrow that I can remember. There is very little in my house today that resided there thirty or forty years ago. But there are a few things: old books on the bookshelf, old school papers tucked into filing cabinets. This summer, when my family did an extensive housecleaning, I found myself weighing the CD collection that I began assembling at the age of 11: several impressive pounds of jewel cases and box sets, many of them arranged in chronological order by artist, packed with memories of elementary school through graduate school and beyond. This collection is technically useless at the moment -- I don't own a CD player -- but no matter; when faced with the choice of what to do with those old-school discs, I opted to preserve them in the attic rather than throw them out. Wait, the attic: that's exactly where Andy plans to stash his toy collection before a series of mishaps eventually leads him to Bonnie's house. Those geniuses at Pixar know how to tap into our weaknesses.
Perhaps, one day, with the gift of an antique CD player that I bought on eBay, I will pass that collection on to a mesmerized younger person. ("This is Johnny Cash, the roughest, toughest cowboy in all of country music...") Perhaps my sentimentality will run out and I will simply dispose of the collection one day. Then again, perhaps it will reside in the attic until I pass on -- in which case its subsequent fate will be an intriguing mystery. My poem this week in the Journal, "Salvaged," is about a scenario of this kind. A great-aunt has died, her husband having gone before her, and her three grand-nieces peruse her old belongings in the house. The oldest sister tells the younger two not to touch anything (maybe out of respect for the dead, maybe just for tidiness' sake), but the other girls pick through the items to see what they might spirit away for use. As the question toward the end of the poem asks, are they committing theft by taking what isn't theirs? Or, since everything in the house needs to be taken away somehow, are they simply helping the movers?
The sisters aren't movers, at least not professionally. They take only what looks appealing. By the end of the poem, the youngest has swiped a teacup -- maybe for play (we don't learn her age), or maybe for actual tea-drinking. The cup can hold liquid, in either case. The middle sister extracts the old Al Jolson records, partly for social media and partly because vinyl is popular among her friends. With a turntable, the records may still play. They will liven a new room, charm a new listener, implant words and music in a new memory. "All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde once wrote. The human race has continually disagreed with that.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.