I don't think that there is any spectacle quite so moving or so sad than to see someone's possessions stacked in the yard in front of what used to be their home. It is odd, not just our own connection with our belongings, but our belongings' connections to us as well.
What once was a living room chair or kitchen chair, where we relaxed and contemplated life or ate our meals, then becomes lawn debris left over from a silent, slow-moving, invisible storm that drowns some and leaves others bone dry. The victims are washed away to a land that we don't know about and have never heard of, and what's more we don't care.
When my son was young we used to launch model rockets on the grounds of an abandoned prison in Alabama. The prison buildings had been razed in the hope that the land could be redeveloped into a residential neighborhood. But the ghosts would have none of it; because of the function of the old prison there had been many, shall we say, "accidents." Record keeping had been supplanted by expediency and it was discovered that the land was littered with numerous unmarked graves.
The ghosts exacted their revenge on the unsuspecting developers because the state had sold the property as is, all sales final. To the ghosts this was their property and they had made good their title. They had purchased it with their lives and paid interest on the note with their bones and the unceasing misery they witnessed. So, as the developers pondered their dilemma, it made an excellent rocket range. I was chasing a red and white parachute one day when I kicked up a stamped steel spoon. It was a spoon just like millions of other spoons, with no adornments of any kind. But as I picked it up and held it, it gave off a vibe that almost burned me. This was a special spoon, not unlike some war relic of the long dead.
It was someone's sole possession, a slender thread, a single article that connected the unnamed and unknown to humanity. It was a utensil that had outlived the container of human misery where it was once employed. Perhaps it was hidden there on purpose, perhaps hidden there as part of an aborted escape attempt that ended in fury and accident. Or maybe it was just serendipity, but here it was, burning my hand. It had outlasted the buildings, the prisoners, the guards and the electric chair that was once the prison's centerpiece of good government.
As I stood there, alone with just the ghosts, the winds and the burning spoon, I had mixed emotions about taking it with me. Part of me said to leave it, to put it back where I found it. To let it slumber in the earth until it joined with the ghosts. Yet, if I took it with me I would be liberating it, giving it a small piece of freedom that the hands which once held onto it so dearly had only dreamed of possessing.
This was indeed no ordinary utensil; this simple spoon with its shiny appearance and checkered past weighed heavily on my mind. I couldn't leave it behind, and when I got home I could neither leave it in the car nor take it into the house. It didn't seem right to leave it in the car, to replace one confinement with another. Likewise to take it into the house and not only to confine it but also to risk it being used again, seemed unconscionable. This spoon had earned its retirement and its parole. Then it came down all around me, the significance of what I had done.
Even a simple tool of this type that we take for granted is entitled to some respect. Even a tool that has served only the lowly and the lonely and the lost and the condemned of this world is entitled to remembrance and even reverence. I took the spoon out to the back of the yard and placed it the bough of a tree, out of sight of the curious. The spoon seemed to be content there and offered up no complaints, so there it stayed for the next several months.
One sunny spring day I was limbing a huge oak tree in the back yard that was too close to the house. The truth was that limbing trees had become part hobby and part part-time job. That's why I had gotten such a good deal on the place; it would have cost more than the price of the house to pay someone to remove all the overgrown trees on the property. And this was a white oak Goliath, far better than five feet around at its base, and I and my chainsaw were about to do battle with it for supremacy.
I placed one ladder against the house and then carried the other up to the roof and tied it off to the tree. Then, with my chainsaw tied to a rope, I began to scale towards the summit. I found a comfortable spot to sit and began to pull the saw up to me with the rope. Just for a moment I surveyed the scene, the sun, the wind, and only the songs of the birds to break the solitude. It was a lovely scene, set against a backdrop of waving, joyous, young green leaves, each screaming for attention as the young often do.
It struck me, and in that instant and I understood why that spoon was so content to be left there in the bough. It was freed from the dirt and connected to the sky, still rooted, still supported, but communing with the angels of our better light. Now free from the misery connected to its previous life, it was perhaps able to exorcise itself from the demons of misery and perhaps even able to bring small peace to those who once held onto it so tightly and treated it so preciously.
I was in its debt; I had removed this fossil from its resting place and was required to find it one anew. So, when I had finished my steeplejack duties, I lowered my saw to the ground. I climbed down and walked to the shed for more fuel and chain oil. But before I did any of that, I retrieved the spoon and put it in my pocket. It still burned but this time it was more of a warm glow, as if its partial freedom had begun to salve its wounds.
Again I climbed the tree and returned to my perch sixty or so feet off the ground where three branches conjoined to make a comfortable resting spot in between. I placed the spoon there, entrusting its fate to the vicissitudes of oak and time. I felt better; I had done for it the best that I could. The spoon was closer to heaven than most of us will ever get or deserve to get. I was liberated, the spoon was liberated and at peace.
It was just a plain spoon, but it had served time no differently than the guards or inmates. It had belonged to a man that had absolutely nothing, not even his own freedom, and it had served him faithfully. A piece of stamped stainless steel laying in the dirt on the grounds of an abandoned prison yard littered with "accidents," it told stories no less than religious texts found hidden away in caves in the holy land. It shouted out its past, its sorrows, its outrages and its mourning for those "accidents" so long ago lost and forgotten.
This all came rushing back in an instant yesterday when I surveyed the wreckage littering the front yard of the little yellow house on the corner. All done for expediency and all buried away in unmarked graves and locked into limbo between heaven and hell.
I read today that the billionaire Warren Buffett says the worst of the economic crisis is behind us, but what does he know? He's never been washed away by the storm nor thrown out with the trash. He's never been evicted for the sake of expediency, nor buried in an unmarked economic grave and lost in a land of limbo.
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