Sunday, July 15, 2007


No, unlike St. Francis (pictured here in a fresco by Giotto), I do not intend to strip bare in the town square of Santa Cruz. But I am giving away most of my worldly possessions in preparation for the move next month to Southeast Asia. A friend, who loves to put me to the test, asked if my renunciation was a matter of convenience or a spiritual exercise. He knew how much pleasure I might take in a bit of holier-than-thous-manship. My answer is: A bit of both. For it is certainly easier to travel light and to live out of a suitcase and backpack that can be carried without much effort. And I also believe that renunciation of possessions as well as "the fruits of action," as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, is a good clean path to enlightenment.

Not that I am anywhere close, mind you. But aside from books and music, and some of those new fangled technological toys (laptop, iPod, cell phone and digital camera), I have never cared much for accumulating possessions. It was easy to give away the clothes that I rarely wear to Goodwill, and the curios and souvenirs I've collected on my travels in recent years either went to friends or into the dust heap. What possessed me to bring back postcards and pamphlets, bits of paper, from every famous sight I toured, only to let the pile stack up in my book cases (both of which I gave to friends)? Framed photos of my favorite scenes make good parting gifts, and the woven material I've hung on my walls for a bit of color, from Guatemala, Thailand and India, have been appreciated by the recipients. My Spanish books will go to a fellow student of the language who promises to use them well, and I'm giving my Lonely Planet guidebooks for Europe to a friend hoping to travel there next year. I hope my notes and underlines are useful. I gave away the iron I never used and a portable mini-vacuum cleaner that also has seen scant duty, unfortunately. The comfy but ugly reading chair will go back to Goodwill . My daughter gets some of the more substantial items: my faithful 1992 Toyota truck, a bicycle, the matté cup from Argentina, my folding meditation bench, a computer printer and the carved stone Ganesha ball I purchased in Mamallapuram. The Remover of All Obstacles will protect her next month when she travels to Vienna and Slovenia to dance and sing. I will also give her the red plaid blanket I wrapped around us in the hammock when she was an infant. That same blanket covered her grandmother as she lay dying. And I've used it to cover me for innumerable naps on the couch. Now I need to find homes for the 6-pound weights I rarely lifted, the black goose-neck desk lamp, the slightly worn plastic in-and-out trays, and the clarinet. Any takers?

I give away these worldly goods with an unholy degree of joy. Each renunciation makes the business of life a little simpler. Unlike the rich man in the Gospel story, I do not get sad when I hear the instruction from Jesus to give all that we own to the poor. Don't get me wrong: I still refrain from giving any of the jangling coins in my pocket to the beggar on Pacific Avenue who wants a beer, or a new life. I'm suspicious and skeptical of any claim on my spare change. But the protection of possessions has not seemed important to me. When I was 12 I recall throwing out the contents of a trunk that contained all the valued possessions that I had accumulated in my short life. My aim was to let go of the past so that I could grow up. And I think it helped. Often during the next fifty years I found myself getting rid of possessions, usually occasioned by a move. A move is as good as a fire for purifying your life. I remember garage and yard sales I've hosted in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and in Connecticut. Moving is definitely a good method for lightening your load. And although I occasionally mourn the renounced artifact, on the whole the exercise has been liberating.

I don't want to claim any special insights, however. Perhaps not clinging to material objects is a matter of temperament. And it has been easier for me. When my marriage broke up I had nowhere to put things. At first, everything went into one of those rented storage sheds now that are so much a part of the landscape (can you imagine the junk that must accumulate inside them?). I would visit from time to time to consult my memories. But eventually it seemed as if I was dragging around the past with me, and so I emptied the shed and got rid of most of the contents. And now, as I prepare for perhaps my last great adventure, I am reduced to the seeds and stems of my life. And some of that is going into boxes to be tucked into a corner at my son's house.

Renunciation, and the giving of our possessions to the poor, has been a lively topic of conversation in my men's group. I am the only unmarried member and the only one who does not own a house. We all believe that the good news of Jesus has something to do with a radically new way of living in the world, one in which servants become leaders and vice versa. In this kingdom of God on earth there would be a major redistribution of wealth. What will that mean? One man and his wife let a homeless person live in their garage, until his behavior became manic and threatened them. Another shared his large house with a succession of students and nonlegal refugees. But does Jesus want us to give everything to the poor? That's what he told the rich man and the rich man, who'd hoped his good deeds would win him eternal life, went away sad because total renunciation was out of the question. How do you define "everything"? Maybe the poor are only the "poor in spirit," and that might let those who own houses and nice cars off the hook.

I will undoubtedly collect more possessions in the lands to which I'm going. A few do-dads and go-gahs here and there lend a little color to a rented room. Add a pile of books, a few pictures, and an apartment can become a home. But when it's time to leave I will once again find myself in the position of a renunciant, giving my goods back into the world from whence they came, to friends, to charities, to the poor. We all know you can't take it with you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If Son #2 doesn't want it-- I'll take the Clarinet - can always use more noisemakers around here.