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Monday, December 31, 2018

Existential Disorder - The Spiritual Disruption Of Getting, Keeping, And Throwing Away

There were only a few things of value in the Pritchard house – a 10th century Hindu head from Khajuraho bought in a Calcutta market, shipped in a lift van home from Bombay, and displayed on the mantel for 30 years, a late 18th century gold plated Revere silver creamer, a 19th century Edo print, and a rare 17th century Korean koan-inspired calligraphic brush-and-ink work of grasses.  Rowan Pritchard paid little attention to anything else, although nothing had been bought thoughtlessly.  There were Turkish ceramics, Victorian glassware, and British prints of India from the days of the Raj – all of series or common for the genre so not valuable per se; but such value was incidental to Rowan.  He could not look at the Khajuraho head, a piece of remarkable grace and subtlety, without reflection – of his days in India, his own immature but serious search for meaning, and the surprising spiritual energy of India’s most holy places, of Benares, Hardwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Allahabad.  He would miss nothing else in the house except the Khajuraho head.

Image result for images 10th century Hindu head

The house had never been decorated, nor had thought ever been paid to interior design, what should go where, or what went well with what.  The Pritchards had found things they liked, displayed them because they liked them, and after many years of travel had settled on the best.  There was not only no need to add to their collection, but doing so would have disturbed the particular personal artistic and even spiritual integrity of the place.  More acquisitions would have meant making room on the mantel, displacing the pre-Colombian terracottas , moving the Mogul miniatures, edging out the Bolivian Aymara silver spoons.  Not that there wasn’t room – the Pritchards’ walls, windowsills, tables, and highboys had ample space for new things –it was that the intimacy of the rooms would be disturbed.  Every house, especially one as carefully considered as the Pritchards’ has a character – not just ‘character’ but a distinctly personal character, as innate and unchangeable as the characters of its owners.  It is a matter of equilibrium.  The house had ‘settled’ years before and nothing should alter its now essential, unchangeable character.

Image result for images pre columbian terra cotta figurines

Rowan Pritchard’s sense of this unchangeability extended to other rooms of the house, those where the most important objects were displayed.  His office had grown from a desk and chairs to his own personal space – one not unlike the downstairs living room, had been carefully although not deliberately arrayed with pieces from his personal, intimate past – photos of his children but as importantly of him as a child.  Their clay ashtrays and dragons, but also his childhood sketches and mobiles.  There was nothing that reflected his long marriage – no pictures of his wife or their times together, no familiarity, no intimations of their relationship which in itself suggested more than he was willing to admit – but everything about his life, his travels, his adventures, his tastes, and his preferences.

His sense of place and surroundings even extended to the practical, more mundane areas of the house – the kitchen, the patio, the landings, and the porch.  The cane furniture on the porch had long since outlived its utility and had begun to crack and fray after many hot Washington summers and cold winters.  The kitchen appliances, cabinets, and floors had long since fallen into semi-disrepair.  Things worked, but not well.  Enclosures enclosed but barely.  Rice, beans, anchovies, and Turkish figs were crowed into old, narrow storage space.  The pots and pans were stored too low; the pasta and teas too high; the sink too small, and the dishwasher old and obsolete.  Yet Rowan wanted no part of renovation, especially re-making – transforming the old, cranky kitchen into a gleaming, track lights-and-tile, butcher-block, high-performance workplace.  Although he did the kitchen, and he would have benefitted from the improvements, he resisted.  There was something upsetting about disrupting the settled nature of the place.

Perhaps it was because as he grew older, change was more and more upsetting per se.  Although he might say he was concerned about feng shui and the native, settled place in which he lived, his wife thought him simply old and obstinate.  Khajuraho head notwithstanding, what was the problem with a new ceiling fan, more spacious refrigerator, and more room?

Neither she nor any of their DIY friends understood.  A house was not a home, but a place in which to live, one subject to age, deterioration, and inefficiency; and one without the essence and personal integrity upon which Rowan insisted.  Nothing was fixed, immutable, or sacred. 

On the contrary, thought Rowan, retention was not a crime, nor a old man’s folly.  It was as important as the permanence of the Khajuraho head – an expression of being not subject to vagary, taste, or efficiency.

An aged aunt of his wife had died recently, and while the old woman had not been a compulsive hoarder, she had acquired more than her share of crockery, flatware, pots and pans, utensils, fans, and throw rugs.  It would be a shame to give all that to Goodwill, said her children, a waste of good things.  So the clarion was blown and the distribution des biscuits began.  Rowan’s wife had been offered the pick of the crop – the blender, the heavy-duty pot, the juicer, and an array of cutlery collected and cared-for since the aunt’s marriage.

Rowan wanted none of it.  He was doing just fine; and except for the lower shelves (it was becoming harder and harder to reach the baking dish in the back), saw no need for any improvements, replacements, or additions.  Goodwill was the benefactor of his obstinacy (ref: his wife), his hopelessly old-fashioned ways (ref:his children); and his stupidly, idealistic, and romantic ideas (ref:his own).

While it is true that older people do indeed get stuck in their ways and hopelessly stuck in the past, Rowan was not a hoarder, someone whom the first responders would have trouble locating because of the piles of old newspapers, New Yorker magazines, cat food, baby clothes, and wedding outfits blocking the way; and would die unencumbered.  His would never be the spare, existential, simple, perfectly-ordered Kyoto ryokan, but it would be the Western approximation – more things and appurtenances, but simple, well-defined, and meaningful nonetheless.

Image result for images japanese kyoto traditional house

The typical American house is recyclable, transformable, dispensable. Items are bought, displayed or used, stored, and eventually thrown out, given away, or sold.  The basement is a very American institution.  It originally served to provide a layer of underground insulation against the harshness of New England winters, but was transformed into a storage space – a place for continued storage of items still thought too valuable to discard but not valuable enough to display or use.  It was the essential link in the American consumer chain.  A holding pen, a deciding area, a last resort for those who could simply not throw out Grandma’s settee.

The more the modern American family buys, the more the basement fills up; but the more quickly are its contents disposed of.  If anyone were to look, they would find the repository of American consumerism.

Given Rowan’s attachment to old things, both valuable and practical, and given his resistance to the legacies of dead aunts and great-grandmothers it was not surprising that his basement was uncluttered. 

There are always stories of old women whose hoarding has become so obsessive that there is no way out.  They live within abandoned walls of newspapers, phone books, old correspondence, hair dryers, pamphlets, and children’s toys and are hard to extract.  They are at the excessive, extreme end of the American dream.  Rowan Pritchard was at the other – spare, uncluttered, unencumbered, unbothered, and unmoved. 

No one really needs a pot with a heavy duty base and more circumference, an extra set of kitchen knives, a crocheted blanket, or set of dessert spoons.  Yet they have an insistence.  Grandma’s kitchenware cannot be discarded without finding a family home; nor her Mother Hubbards, lace shawls, and Easter hats.  Only the Rowan Pritchards of the world can resist them, discard them, and be done with them as though they never existed.  Like Grandma herself.

Image result for images woman in a mother hubbard dress

There was no ulterior purpose to Rowan’s particularity.  His rejection of things had nothing to do with either the things he kept or threw away or the people who owned them; but only some vague sense of order – disruption was a greater sin than fornication . Yet his was indeed a spiritual life, one whose existential mandates, although not consciously realized, were imperative.  Keeping, preserving, withholding, maintaining – even when it came to appliances or silverware – had more to do with existential order than any old, fuddy-duddy, old man’s persnicketiness.

Rowan Pritchard was more than a survivor.  He was a latter-day prophet.

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