after the flood

As some of you know through Facebook and Joy of Sox gamethreads, we've been very busy at the Kaminker-Wood household, busy-ness of the unexpected and unwelcome kind. Yesterday afternoon there was a sudden and violent storm in Mississauga. It rained about as hard as I've ever seen it, and kept up for more than an hour, at torrential force. This resulted in flash flooding - including in our basement.

The basement is home to Allan's office - filled with books, CDs, DVDs, photos, memorabilia - you name it. He has (had) cardboard boxes and piles of paper all over the floor, and water was pouring in under the carpet and filling up the room.

We frantically began grabbing everything we could, running upstairs and dumping it on the dry floor, then downstairs for more stuff. Poor Allan, I could see the fear and panic on his face. I suspected that his most precious things - family memories, 2004 Red Sox memorabilia, his book research - would probably be higher up, safely stored, but you never know. He could have been searching for something last week that would leave an important box in the middle of the room.

In addition, there's everything we store in the basement, under the stairs or in the laundry room. Water was rising everywhere.

The rain stopped. The water subsided. The sun came out. But we still had plenty to do. Running up and down stairs carrying books is hard work! We were sweaty, exhausted - and annoyed.

At some point, squishing our way around the smelly, soaked carpet, I became afraid of another potential disaster. We had removed the books from the bottom shelf of Allan's bookshelves, but the rest of the shelves were packed. What if it the bookcase became unstable and toppled over? Hundreds of dry books and CDs - not to mention photos, autographed baseballs and other meaningful things - would go tumbling into the water below.

Allan went out to the liquor store to get a new supply of dry cardboard boxes, for temporary storage. Then he packed up most of the books and carried the boxes up two flights of stairs to our spare bedroom. What fun.

After that we decided not to continue working all night. We had dinner on the patio (now a lovely, dry, breezy evening!) and watched our Red Sox game amidst the boxes and piles.

* * * *

Today, Allan is sorting and drying stuff out. We're going to get plastic containers for him, the kind I use to store my own stuff. Cardboard is greener, but plastic will give us peace of mind.

The damage is nowhere as bad as we thought. We acted fast enough and the boxes were thick enough that most of the things in those boxes were all right. Some papers and books did sustain some water damage - they're sunning in the backyard right now - but considering how much water came in, it's not much.

It's a lot of work, but we were very lucky. Yesterday I kept thinking how lucky we were that this flood happened while we were home. If it had happened last week while we were in Boston, and everything just sat in the water for days... that would have been a disaster.

Also, it's been a great year to be a renter. This house has needed a new oven and a new furnace this year - and now it needs a new basement floor, and who knows what else. Our landlord doesn't even know yet; I left messages but I think he's out of town. I'm sure the repairs will be an inconvenience for us, but at least we won't go into debt over it.

* * * *

This annoying but relatively harmless episode has made me think about people who lost everything they had. The people who survived Hurricane Katrina, but who lost their homes and all their possessions (and whose insurance - which they had paid diligently for decades - turned out to be a scam). People whose houses are destroyed by fire. People who must flee their homes to escape war, and can never return.

I remembered reading a description of flight in China, after invasion by Japan. I thought it was in Maxine Hong Kingston's classic The Woman Warrior, but as I'm looking into it, I now realize it was written by one of Kingston's literary heirs, Amy Tan, in The Joy Luck Club. A woman, formerly well-off, is fleeing. Her possessions - everything that will fit - are loaded onto a wheelbarrow, which she pushes until the wheel breaks. Now she can only carry her things by hand. She makes decisions, jettisons more and more, but still tries to carry more than she can possibly retain. She grows ill. Her hands bleed from carrying her bundles. Finally, in order to survive, she abandons everything - including her infant twins.

Not long ago, I blogged about the novel Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky. The first part of the book, "Storm in June," is a ground-level description of people fleeing Paris after it was invaded and occupied by the Nazis. Némirovsky clearly seethes with contempt and disgust at her former neighbours who saved their precious possessions but abandoned human beings. After all, she was one of the abandoned: a French and Russian Jew who later died in Auschwitz. Her children survived with her notebooks - possessions saved.

* * * *

So I'm thinking about stuff, and humans' attachment to stuff.

While Allan is a pack-rat and I like to say I am a minimalist, I also save personal memorabilia. It's organized and I've culled it down to what I consider necessities, but save it I do, packed away in shoeboxes I call My Archives. The story of my life is packed into those boxes, and I'd be horrified to lose them.

Some of us are more attached to material things than others, but few of us are completely un-attached to the material world. For most of my life, as far back as I can remember, I have dreamt of traveling for extended periods of time with no fixed address. Part of the attraction is that it would necessitate living very simply - owning very little stuff.

Humans, it would seem, have always been acquisitive. Early man, hunting and gathering, could not acquire more than he could carry. But since the advent of agriculture, and the village - from the earliest civilizations - humans have acquired and collected, and have been at least partly defined by the objects around them.

Throughout most of history, a person's wealth and status was defined by how much stuff he had. Only rich people could have a lot of stuff. The richer you were, the more stuff you had. If you were rich enough, you could be buried with your stuff - which often included animals, women and slaves.

Peasants and working people would have few possessions, but even owning any stuff at all distinguished them from the completely indigent, who had only what they wore and could carry.

It's only very recently, an eye-blink in historical terms, that ordinary, non-wealthy people can acquire stuff, too - and lots of it. Now, as working-class people fill their homes and lives with stuff, wealthy people have to acquire even stuff - and more outrageously unnecessary and expensive stuff - to carry the markers of their class. One of the hallmarks of large amounts of disposable income is having way more stuff than you can ever use - a too-big house, a fleet of cars, more than one house, so a home stands empty most of the time.

But it's funny, really, because it's all temporary. We only have our stuff during our lifetimes. The old cliche "you can't take it with you" is a basic truth. But that doesn't stop most people from their desire to acquire it.

* * * *

Our consumer culture is out of control. Of that I have no doubt. I often feel oppressed by the sheer weight of stuff all around us, and you know I feel oppressed by the constant exhortations all around me to buy, buy, buy, more, more, more. (In case you haven't seen it: The Story of Stuff.)

But even those of us who reject consumerism, who live simply or at least simpler, still cling to some stuff - at least stuff invested with memories, and thus irreplaceable.

We can imagine losing, say, our furniture, our kitchens, our clothes or our play things. If that happens, we'd be sad, and frustrated, maybe depressed. But sooner or later, most of us would get to the point where we said, Those are just things, and things can be replaced.

But our photographs, our letters, trinkets of friendship, notebooks or diaries, objects passed down from parents or grandparents or friends now gone - that's what would hurt.

For those things, too, "you can't take it with you" applies. We know when we die we'll leave all of it behind. But we want to keep these things as long as we live - not because of the objects themselves, but because of the subjective feeling we have invested in them. We look at these things, and they evoke memories and emotions. At that point, they are not just things. They are symbols.

I think this may be universal, and uniquely human.

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