I pick up stuff
A house is basically a big pile of stuff with a roof on it.
I am a romantic, sentimental guy. That is why I collect things, because I perceive or invent value in things apart from their simple utility. Now, there are pros and cons to acquisition, and the con argument is strong when you consider that we will all eventually die and can take nothing with us. So why collect things for starters? Material stuff is only a burden - psychological, spiritual as well as physical and periodically shedding collected junk can feel very liberating. The pro argument can take different paths: collecting as an expression of a surfeit of love; collecting as a social responsibility (archivists, museum curators, librarians); collecting for utility (only the things we need, even if we need a lot); collecting for self actualization or affirmation (I am what I have, and I am rich because I have a lot); collecting for security (I have more than enough, just in case); collecting as an innocent hobby, destined to be properly disbursed at an appropriate time in an organized manner beneficial to someone (I will donate my Smurf collection to a nursery school and my Luke Skywalker, Mr. T and Elwood Blues action figures to a pop culture museum); and so on.
Obsessive collecting might be a sign of mental pathology - like the crazy lady who collects garbage, or cats in her house and whose decomposing body is eventually discovered under a collapsed pile of old newspapers, National Geographic and Life, surrounded by starving felines and the stench of urine. For most people, collecting things follows a bell curve. From childhood to independent adulthood we slowly collect things to call our own, continually discharging them and upgrading with new things - new clothes or new skiis - until finally we have families of our own and houses to keep them in. A house is basically a big pile of stuff with a roof on it. Then when we are elderly and our children have left we contract, slowly divesting ourselves of things both to make our collections reflect our lives and to serve our lives better through simplification in preparation for our Exit. This is my mother’s current stage. Leftover things - some valuable - can be handed down across generations. But value is a very subjective thing. Objects might be objectively financially or culturally valuable, or subjectively, emotionally valuable - or just rubbish in the sight of many. So collectors might be under the impression that they are saving things - saving them from destruction at the hands of those who don’t appreciate them. In moderation it could very well be spot-on accurate, but in extremity it could be not just inaccurate, but clinically delusional.
Many people who know me know that I have a large book collection - several thousand and growing. I plan to divest myself of it some day, but not yet. I still possess most of my university notes, all of my high school history essay note cards (organized in card files like an old fashioned library catalogue), and only in recent years did I throw away most of my elementary school and junior high school detritus. (I spent 35-years searching thrift shops and garage sales for my old Second Grade reader. After finally discovering it I’m not giving it up any time soon.)
When I was a boy I collected old Canadian coins and some foreign coins as well - gifts and keepsakes from grandparents. The introduction of the Loonie undermined the very meaning of my silver dollar collection, but I still have it. Old coins are fascinating and romantic - to hold in my warm fingers what someone held in theirs in 1850. Shazam! How many fingers of living people did they touch? If the coins could talk, what would they say? I’m not getting rid of something like that! They are like pieces of living magic.
Collecting one thing or another has been a constant pastime since I was a child. I think I did it because I was seeking independence. I thought that having my own things would free me from dependence. I collected the books I received as Christmas presents. I collected a nice bag of marbles. To this day my favorite childhood sweatshirt featuring Snoopy on his doghouse fighting the Red Baron still hangs in my old bedroom closet, next to my Cub Scout and Boy Scout shirts. I saved my school things thinking that I might reference them as a teacher some day. Later, with that same conviction, I collected artifacts of history and culture intended as eventual classroom props. Subsequently, after assuming residence in TokyoI began amassing a collection of Japonica for the same purpose.
For many years in Japan I collected aluminum ball bearings called “pachinko balls” from the roadside where drunks dropped them on their way home the night before, after spending hours of gambling at pachinko arcades. It was a habit started by my daughter when she was a baby. First she collected small stones off the street, then acorns, and then pachinko balls. I helped her collect each of them in turn and continued to do so even after she grew out of it. Eventually I grew out of it, too.
These days I have a thing for a particular type of Japanese sake bottle that looks like it is hand-made terra cotta ceramics, glazed with Chinese characters. I keep a sharp eye out and manage to collect three or four of them from the roadside rubbish each year. They are actually mass-produced in a factory, but they look quite unique, and discovering them in the trash is more exciting than simply going to a liquor shop and buying them. It’s like contemporary urban archaeology.
For twenty year in Japan I have been meticulously making and collecting English teaching documents and tools. Many of the schools I have worked in have had no designated EFL/ESL textbooks and barely a notion of a curriculum. “Just make your own lessons” is often all I had to go on. So I did. Now I have about ten thousand teaching prints, all properly labeled, categorized and alphabetized. I’ve written my own textbooks for schools, and continue to keep a copy of everything at home - and add to them ceaselessly. I made them and collected them for pragmatic purposes, but at the same time that I invested them with my labor they became invested with my affection, too. And for years my wife and I have repeatedly acted out some Hellenistic drama of divine struggle
“It’s garbage! Get it out of the house!”
“But, darling, I need these. They’re my treasure. They’re my life’s work.”
“And what am I? Out!”
The Internet did not exist when I came to Japan, so having a proper supply of copies ready to go was a great advantage then - especially for short-notice, substitute lessons. Today we can much more easily and freely find appropriate materials on the Internet and print them up quickly, challenging not only the rationale of my teaching library, but its prized utility as well. But then the natural conservatism of Japanese culture is my ally in this work. Despite its technological prowess and fetish for automation, the Japanese workplace protects and preserves many low-tech, slow and wasteful features. Offices everywhere expose us to mountains of old fashioned papers, binders and files - not to mention steam radiators and manual typewriters. I admire them, actually, because the truth is that silicon technology comes and goes so fast, but when properly cared for paper practically lasts forever. Just as astronauts should never blast off in billion dollar rockets without packing a $2 roll of gum tape, we should never abandon humble paper in our wiz-bang technology-saturated modern world.
I have also been saving a copy of every letter I have sent to my parents from Japan since 1989. These days that collection is approaching a thousand-page book.
All my life that I can remember I have adored used bookstores, thrift stores, antique markets, garage sales and museums, because I empathize with objects that were once treasured, used and invested with value by real people living real lives. I can feel the souls that these things once belonged to. I hate to see such things, once treasured but now discarded, ignored, broken, and unloved. Collecting is motivated by love. So it was recently when I found a small stuffed animal - a hamster? - on the road in front of my building. It looked like a young child’s toy. Did it fall from the delicate grip of a little girl in the child’s seat of her mother’s bicycle? But since cuteness has such a high premium in JapanI couldn’t discount that it belonged to a teenaged girl from the high school across the road and that it fell out of her bag by chance. It was clean: a fresh loss. I have my own stuffed animals at home (a small brown bear next to my computer, and a large one in the bedroom), so I didn’t feel inclined to collect this find for myself, even though I admired its cuteness and felt the pleading sadness of its abandonment shimmering in its brown button eyes. Should I have left it where I found it in case the owner, or her mother, came looking for it? Or, I could rescue it - not for myself as I say, but for some other destination. After moments of deliberation I chose the latter. I picked it up with love, gently put it in my pocket next to the CD player blasting Motorhead in my ears, and carried it to an English Conversation school where I do part time work. The school has some toys to occupy young children who arrive early and must wait for their classes to start, and this little hamster could be an addition to the family of stuffed toys on the shelf near the secretary’s desk.
“Here’s something that needs love. Look at its eyes. Please take care of it for me.”
Since I started working at this English outlet its collection of stuff has measurably grown. But that has nothing to do with me.