memo to the living
by Matthew Flaming

In many ways, it’s like life all over again except longer and more diffuse. There’s the same hurting and caring, boredom and hope. But there are differences too. You’re nowhere in particular; and at first, you’re everywhere. It’s a godlike feeling, a miniature omnipotence. You watch from the light fixtures in the bathroom and the barbeque in the backyard; you see everything. After the service you listen from the bells of wineglasses and are everyone’s best friend. Each thing of yours becomes a window onto the world and soon you hardly even mind the distance, the one-way mirror that separates you from everything that you have known and loved.

At a certain point, of course, you are divided up. Someone gets the bed and nightstand, someone else the car. The stack of old paperbacks that sat in the basement for years is donated to the Salvation Army, the disgraceful armchair you loved is thrown away outright. Usually the richer you are, the longer it takes to disperse. Being a packrat also helps, as does being a compulsive shopper. But sooner or later, everyone comes apart.

Wills become a subject of intense discussion and debate, who got what and why. Whether mistakes were made. (Did I mention that a lot of discussion goes on? Commentary is our only real pastime, the stuff that gives shape to our lives. And there are some wonderful conversationalists, if you can find them. Frederick Douglass, John Stuart Mill, Elvis Presley.) You move into new houses, observe morning and nighttime routines, the subtle mythologies of each family. You begin to see your children and relatives in a whole new light. This can be unpleasant, or wonderful.

You also enter the lives of strangers, in unexpected and intimate ways. The scarf you loved that winter is bought at a yard sale and winds up in the possession of a college student with pierced eyebrows and a thing for Marx. The lake cabin is purchased by a young doctor and her husband, your umbrella is picked up by a homeless man who rides the rails to Portland, Oregon. You feel like a slow-motion explosion, like an opening hand. Your antennae stretch across mountains. You begin understand, for the first time, the thing about chance, which many now call by a different name.

From a vase on the windowsill you watch your great-granddaughter on her wedding day. Inside a tattered hiking backpack you listen while two high-school boys make love in a high-Sierra meadow, as meteors fall overhead. As a discarded toothbrush you learn the patterns of the dark, lithe rats that live near the riverbank. You begin to understand a lot of things. You may even become wise.

Of course, from the start things get lost. Paper decomposes, chairs are reupholstered, bottles are recycled. And as each thing disappears, you can see a little less of the world. You grow thinner, and with time – even as you are finally starting to understand – the wear and tear begins to show. Apartments are redecorated, houses are demolished. Neighborhoods are revitalized, cities bombed. You watch, and grow smaller. You become like the life of a tree. Natural disasters occur. There are floods. There is erosion. You become like the life of a rock.

As I may have mentioned, it helps to be rich. Turns out you can take it with you. It also helps to be famous. Some paupers have survived that way for centuries, like poor Van Gogh looking from the walls of museums around the world at the outstretched and peering faces of a million complete strangers. (Enough to drive anyone crazy, although one suspects that poor Vincent was always broken.) Of course in the very long term it comes down to luck, who survives. The oldest man I know remembers the smell of wet wooly mammoth. Someone found his axe.

For most of us, long before that, we begin to notice our limitations. The windows become smaller and fewer, the view cramped. You are a tea-kettle, a set of china that is only taken out of the cupboard on special occasions, a tattered suitcase in the attic. In a strange way, you become these last few things. You fall into a kind of trance, you become quiet. You lodge in the tiniest of details, and some stay this way forever. Others let go: they get tired, or bored, or eager for the next thing and disappear. It’s a matter of simple choice, so simple that it escapes words. I knew a woman whose last possession was a dressing-cabinet: she lived in it for generations. Eventually, the cabinet was refinished – all except for the bottom. She spent a lifetime staring at the floorboards, the dust bunnies and the tips of occasional shoes before giving up the ghost. That’s how it goes: we look, and learn, until we’ve had enough, and then we look away.

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