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We’re all inclined to stash: the catch-all drawer in the study; the jammed shelves in the front hall closet; the rusting bikes and tools in the garage; the dusky trunks in the attic; the bulging sacks in the basement; the faded shed in the backyard; the discolored boxes stashed in the annex; the stacks of recipes from House and Garden magazines bundled in the kitchen cupboards.

What compels us to hoard stuff we think we’ll use someday, especially when that “someday” rarely arrives?

A similar clutter can also occur in our psyches vacuuming social media for titillation, engorging the latest scandal from The Hill or undigested trivia, staring down our neighbor’s excesses—even Broadway productions of festering resentments.

And then we wonder why we seek medical or psychiatric attention: pills to fix us, an injection to mellow us, or even surgery to cut out the disorder.

Can it be about mindlessness?

There is a response to this disorder offered by a wise friend: “If in doubt, out!”

 

 

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The Mysteries of China, one of the offerings screened at the St. Louis Omnimax, affords a long look into the past: the year is 201 B.C., the death of Qin Shi Huang, the first self-styled emperor of a unified China. A military genius, a ruthless tyrant, steeped in the blood of warring states around him, he created multiple enemies who wanted him dead. Within the protection of his generals, however, he carried on his economic and social reforms and had slaves build the national road system and the Great Wall; of no consequence were the deaths of thousands engaged in these labors.

But not so for himself.

Terror of dying compelled him to search the known world for an elixir of life. Paradoxically, the mercury potion prepared by Chinese alchemists caused his death when forty-nine years old.

Yet, Qin Shi Huang did begin preparing for this eventuality after his accession to the throne. Thousands of laborers constructed a necropolis with an underground palace and a life-sized terracotta army of eight thousand, each with a unique face, together with one hundred and thirty chariots and five hundred and twenty horses. Only in 1974 did farmers, digging a well in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, happened upon this phenomenon. Whatever was to come, Qin Shi Huang would be protected, or so he thought.

Such ostentatious funereal sites give me pause. They are are still around.

 

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A dizzily morning, ten minutes before the opening of the estate sale on our court, cars and trucks line adjacent streets. A steady stream of the curious hotfoot it toward the brick bungalow, heads bowed into the wind, faces taut as a fisherman’s line onto a catch. Within hours, the deceased’s world is dismantled, pieces of it stashed in bags, propped upon dollies, tucked in backseats. More cars slip into parking spaces vacated by others. So the rest of the day goes.

This dismantling recalls another, more violent, found in Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Zorba the Greek (1946). Immediately after the death of the former courtesan, Madame Hortense, the villagers strip her home, leaving only an empty birdcage, its door unhinged.

And still another dismantling in 1980 chills me to this day. After placing a disabled widow in a nursing home, I planned to sell her few belongings from her apartment in the Blumeyer projects, the proceeds to cover some of her personal needs. Over the weekend, however, others accessed her apartment and made off with what comprised her world, leaving only three rusty skillets and an empty barrel chest, save for a used condom. These we did sell to her neighbors, recouping $4.23 for the widow.

So questions remain. What is there about our insecurities that grasp for more, sometimes at the expense of others? Why the discontent with what we have? Of what do we hope to gain?

Years ago, I was told that the greatest charity was to live simply and be mindful of those who would clean up after our passing. It seems to work.

 

 

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