Redefining baggage rather than ditching it

There are many things in my house that shouldn’t be here anymore. Not because I’m a hoarder, though, honestly, I have more of a tendency than I’ll admit on a blog.

But I’m not talking about dozens of unused tchotchkes or decades-old, half-eaten yogurt parfaits. I’m referring to items that represent a time in my life that’s gone; stuff that I should rightfully give to charity so someone else can make a life with my stuff sans the bad memories.

But for various reasons, I hang on to a few key items that both remind me of a painful time in my life and offer me a portal into the future. Not the flux capacitor kind. Just the “hey, I’m okay with the choices I’ve made so I’m moving forward despite not having a DeLorean” kind.

The most obvious, and frequently used items that some people might shed as life progresses, are remnants of my marriage.


But it’s pretty easy to keep winding a gorgeous clock twice a day, marveling that it’s still as compelling to me in its metronomically clicking timekeeping as it was when we found it in a small mountain town on our honeymoon. I don’t need to still be in the marriage to appreciate the clock. Or the memory. Or the joy visitors find when they stumble upon the lovely mechanical creature.

The same goes for the wedding china. The kids and I eat off wedding china every meal, and some nights, the man who helped pick the pattern joins us. Do I want to be cooking several nights a week for four people rather than three? No, gentle reader, I do not. Do I cook meals to be enough for four anyway, and (somewhat) warmly invite the boys’ dad to join us when he comes over? Yes, I do. And whether he’s there or not, the plates are gorgeous.


They’re important to me because they represent grownup decisions that I stand by even if I would now do things differently, given volumes of information and a dozen years’ additional experience. We all know that’s not how decisions work. There is no going back to change history just because you’re older and wiser and in a completely different place mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. I stand by my life and I stand by my wedding china. (Plus, honestly, the stakes are much lower if kids break dishes—they haven’t yet, but I have. It’s not as though the tableware is any indication or harbinger of the health of our marriage. In fact, a dear friend recently broke a crystal wine glass, and it made me quite happy. Really. I use the wedding crystal every day, because we don’t have many fancy things, but the fanciness we do have I like to be part of my daily life. That one broken wine glass reminds me a of joyful, funny evening with people I love, and I’d rather have something momentous like a broken glass cement my gratitude than have a full set of unforgettable wine glasses and boring, forgettable friends.


Maybe I’m blase about using fine china and crystal every day because I don’t care about stuff. Sure, that’s part of it. Maybe I don’t get rid of it because I don’t have many genuinely fancy things and it’d be a shame to ditch them just because I’m not married anymore. The relationship changed and did not survive, and the plates and glasses remain. No need to be weepy and metaphoric about it. They’re plates. And glasses. And maybe that’s because I’m not in pain about the end of my marriage. It was clear the relationship was over. Irreconcilable. Painful to maintain, kinder to dissolve. So sure the plates aren’t a big deal.

But these glasses are.


The family who gave us these researched the best glasses for red wine, my favorite beverage (other than water), and chose these because they look a bit like beakers. We were science nerds together, and I respected and envied their research once I ditched the lab for a career in language. So they bought me carefully crafted nerd goblets to show their attention and care. We all married around the same time, and we supported each other. We had babies around the same time, and we supported each other. And they ditched me, saying I was too much. After fifteen years it finally dawned on them, it seems, that I’m not worth knowing.

But I still use the glasses. I got rid of every other gift they’d given me over the course of our long friendship, but I kept the glasses. Because the glasses are gorgeous. And they’re for red wine and for sparkling water, and I will not let them take from me the joy of red wine in a flawless glass. No, ma’am and sir. I will not. I am worth knowing and I am worth really nice glassware.

I don’t let the kids use those.

One of the items in my house that, by all logic should be tossed straight into the trash, will never leave my possession if I can help it. As with the treasures hand made by my grandfather, and the photos of beloved family and friends, I get weepy about this particularly dear item in the living room.


My penny sculpture is a pile of coins made molten and fused by the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991. I retrieved them from the pile of rubble at the Parkwood Apartments, which had gone from a delightful roommate compromise to an elevated concrete slab of ash and post-apocalyptic barrenness in a matter of hours.


When I repossessed the pennies, I had to sign a waiver stating that, to the best of my knowledge, these were my pennies. I’m going to be honest: I have no idea if these were my pennies. I have no earthly recollection whether I even kept a pile of coins in my bedroom at the time. But the penny sculpture, formed by natural forces and placed by the management company right near a coffee mug that had definitely been mine, claimed me when I saw them.

So I signed for the pennies, thinking, “damn it, there are dozens of fused-coin sculptures around here, and it’s not as though I’m taking one that clearly has a wedding ring or an heirloom necklace melted into it. I’m taking a small, worthless clump of coins that might or might not belong to me because I’m not fully functioning, I’m a bit of a hoarder, and I cannot walk away from this tragedy with just a coffee mug that has a lump of concrete fused to it. I signed my name and bond that I was the rightful owner of the mug, too. I did not take or sign for some corningware that looked familiar. “I don’t want baking dishes,” I thought angrily, “even if they are mine.” A lot of corningware survived intact, and there were distinctive flowered logos on baking dishes with and without fused cement blobs in most of the regions on card tables marked by address with white copy paper and black sharpies.

I didn’t scan through all the items, as some survivors did. There might have been more to claim, I suppose, after the entire community burned to nothing in a 14,000 degree exploding landscape of eucalyptus and oak. But I didn’t care about getting more stuff. I went to the area labeled as our address, grabbed pennies and a mug, and left. Probably sobbing. I threw away the mug away soon after, some time in the beginning of the year of undiagnosed PTSD. I have no memories of that year other than a music class in which the room swam every time I opened my eyes, a smelly and disordered breakfast of seven hardboiled egg whites peeled on the walk to literature class, and a meeting with my counselor in which I asked to drop organic chemistry after two months of trying, desperately, to do homework in a cavernous frat house room.

I don’t keep and cling to and commune with the pennies to rub salt in a wound. I keep the pennies as a “holy fuck, if you made it through that, today is going to be okay” talisman. Because holy fuck. In fact, I should, rightfully, call them the Holy Fuck sculpture, but every time I ask if anyone has seen them, I call them My Pennies. Has anyone seen My Pennies? I moved My Pennies and I can’t find them…Peanut, do you know where My Pennies are? Wedding China Picker Outer, where are My Pennies? Yay! I found My Pennies! They’re just where I left them.

Of course they are just where I left them, placed ceremoniously in front of Foucault’s History of Madness or Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood or the complete works of Faulkner. Or in the bird’s nest I found walking Peanut to school. Nobody is going to move My Pennies. Some objects are too important, both for the past and the future, for anyone to mess with them.

Hoardy? Me?

(No, the title is not a reference to The Bearded Iris‘s twittery use of “whorety” for forty, though I love that. Can’t wait to turn whorety next month. But this is about being hoardy. Read on.)

A post at Big Little Wolf’s Daily Plate of Crazy had me thinking. She asked how we draw the line between collecting and hoarding. The clinical definition specifies that to be a hoarder you have to collect so much and be so unwilling to shed anything that you can’t maneuver in your house.

No problem. I have lots of space.

I used to be a collector. I treasured bits and pieces of my personal history, my family’s mementos, and objects that held special importance.

But after the fire, I changed. I still like to collect and to cling. But after a few months or years, I call treasures “clutter” and shove them all into the donation bag. I put into the garage sale pile things that should be important to me.

But they’re just things.

I learned what it means to keen for lost belongings and to forget them relatively quickly. I have found small bits of what I thought I lost and mourned as deeply as I thought possible for what I would never get back.

Because what you really lose in catastrophe is a sense of safety. Of permanence. Like nothing else, a home-demolishing fire teaches you nothing is forever. Especially stuff.

And I can tell you: what I cling to now—what I cannot live without—is memories. Even if they’re not permanent, and even if they change before I can document them and certainly each time I replay them, memories serve as a lasting link from who we were to who we are.

I don’t need stuff to remind me. I treasure words, I love photographs. But I need neither to remember who I am and who I’ve been.

I joked at Daily Plate of Crazy that maybe I’m so willing to toss what I collect even while longing to hear the stories behind friends’ collections because the adventures my tchotkes represent aren’t adventuresome enough.

Maybe if I lived large and loud I’ve have bigger memories and a better collection.

But it’s not true. No matter how I live it feels large. And I preserve the memories the best I can.

And I just don’t need to keep the dust-collectors to hang on to what I want to remember.

Oakland Hills Fire Anniversary

October 20, 1991 began…well…strangely.

I was in a recently rented apartment with my college roommate and her sister. We awoke late and I wanted to cook some breakfast before the football game. I had planned a glorious brunch, football, and a day of studying. I have no idea what my roommate and her sister planned because, though we had roomed together in the dorms and moved in together for our sophomore year, we didn’t hang out much. We didn’t talk much. We each bought our own groceries and cleaned our own halves of the apartment and just sort of coexisted.

Starting around 10:30 am I heard sirens. Weird, since we lived at the liminal space between an open, grassy area and a freeway. We were surrounded by a horseshoe of trees and grasses, bounded by a concrete tunnel thought the hill at one side, and a freeway along the other. There weren’t many houses nearby, so the sirens were strange.

So were the popping sounds of cars backfiring. I didn’t understand those. Lots of backfires in the tunnel this morning, I thought, as I looked out the window. The sky was black with smoke.

Hmmm. Someone’s barbequeing at 10am? Must be tailgating for the game I thought.

Obviously one of the most stupid humans ever to live, I ignored the sirens and the popping sounds of eucalyptus trees exploding in the fire, and I poached egg whites in a cheddar cheese sauce. Because eggs and sourdough need cheese. It’s the law.

At some point, my roommate’s sister looked out the living room window onto the balcony and asked aloud what was going on. The sky was still a swirling black. And as we looked north along the dry hillside that constituted our view, we saw flames. We ran into my bedroom, which was further along the hill. By the time we got there, the whole hill was ablaze and we could feel the heat through the window.

Get dressed, I said.

They did. I stayed and stared. Bad move.

I grabbed my purse and slipped on sandals. We walked out into the common hallway and saw our neighbors similarly transfixed by the view out their balcony window. I heard them say, “As long as it doesn’t catch that tree, we’ll be fine.” We blew past and went toward the elevator.

In case of fire use stairs not elevator, I intoned. We pushed down the stairs and my roommate shoved open the stairwell door into the garage. The smoke was so thick we gagged, and I pulled the door closed. My roommate had decided to take her scooter to safety. Her sister and I decided to take the other stairs.

We went upstairs again and ran through the halls to the fire escape. When I opened the door we could see the trees, planted to decorate the fire escape, were all ablaze. I pulled the door closed and dug through my purse. I handed my roommate’s sister a pair of sunglasses.

Put these on in case there are flying embers, I said.

[Allow me to pause and say I know I’m ludicrous. But this is what happened and you can’t be a rule-following, practical, overstuffed-purse-toting, dork of a college student without getting some goddamned props 20 years later for keeping your roommate’s sister’s eyes (and your own) safe from burning embers. Spare sunglasses. Write that down.]

We hurried down the hot stairs and reached the bottom. I thought I was going to be relieved. Firefighters. Phew. That means everything’s okay, right?

KTVU screen grab of our apartment complex

He had his hose trained on the hillside, and he looked terrified. I have never seen a professional look more like a frightened child in my life. I knew we were definitely not okay. So much for reassuring us. He was too busy trying to stay alive. (See the 11:30-11:45 am timestamp here where the firefighters abandon their positions right about now).

We ran as far as we could but had to stop at the freeway. There was a long line of cars trying to get out to the freeway, but some of them were on fire. We were confused. My roommate met us here, explaining she couldn’t get her scooter out. We all decided to hitchhike.

If I get in a car with a stranger, my mother will kill me.

Some very nice people drove us through Oakland. I remember only a few specifics: The sun was red. Everyone was going to church. The traffic was terrible. I will never in my life forget how surreal it felt. I thought I had fallen into a Dahli painting.

NASA ground level image

I called our house when we got to a friend’s house. (This is before cell phones, people.) Busy signal. I called my mom. Everything’s okay, but there’s a fire. My house is gone, I sobbed.

“Oh, honey,” she said, “I heard about that fire. I’m sure your house is fine. Hang on…that’s the call waiting….your uncle just called and told me about the fire. I’m watching on tv now. I’m so sorry.”

I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. My boyfriend showed up with camping kitchen utensils. Not sure how that would help, since everyone except me still had a kitchen. What I really needed was a bra, truth be told, because I was still in my jammies and VERY uncomfortable about not being, um, fully dressed.

My dad and stepmom had been driving cross country to come see my new apartment.

here's the bedroom...and all the other rooms. They're a bit dusty.

They took me clothes shopping instead. FEMA and the Red Cross set up tons of booths on campus and we got our books replaced and some money for food.

My roommate got mono and went home for the semester. I moved into a frat house that generously offered to let me stay. It was disgusting and uncomfortable but they were insanely nice to me. I lived in a haze, rarely ate, and somehow functioned. The University offered the extremely rare chance to drop a class without penalty. I dropped music and kept organic chemistry.

Life goes on for all but the 25 people who died. I still remember stories of those who didn’t make it. You don’t need those images in your mind, but I still feel graphic descriptions I read when combing the news for friends’ names. Every day came, despite the fire, like the one before, with sunshine and too many people and cars and unceasing noise. Days just kept coming.

A year later I had pretty terrible PTSD. And each year is easier. My long-term terror at the sight of fires eventually subdued to a simple avoidance of flame. I no longer have nightmares or panic attacks. I have driven past the old apartment a few times. I can look at a few photos without panicking, though I can’t click links to video of that day. (I asked someone to preview this video, and it includes footage of the fire behind our building.)

I’ve heard there are events today: memorials for those who died, celebrations for those who’ve rebuilt. But I can’t go today. I just can’t do that yet. I’m not ready. I have my clump of molten pennies, salvaged from somewhere around where we lived. Sorry, other survivors, if I took your pennies. We all had a change pile, and it all fused. Hope you found some, too, when they finally let us go back. I have a really close friend, now, in that roommate with whom I had just coexisted. And I think somewhere I still have a coffee mug with a clump of concrete fused to it. It’s a dorky, cartoon teddy bear mug, but the chunk of building glommed onto it makes it seem edgier. Like punk rock watercolor bears who got so drunk they can’t remember how they got fused with concrete. But they’re stuck with it now.

A big ol’ concrete scar that marks us for life and makes us remember that, well, not everyone’s lucky enough to see a dark line on their history and say, “that’s the day I almost died. But I didn’t and I’m here, so let’s get going.”

[And now my PSA: Please trim the greenery near your house. Please have an emergency bag packed with id, extra money or credit card, spare glasses, any meds you take, and a thumb drive with all your photos. And please update your insurance policy. Boring, true. Useful, though.]