This is a little essay I wrote, just for the fun of writing, based on an incident that happened about a year ago. It concerns memories and the things we keep and pass on to others.
Arnie’s Last Ride
I hear an odd scraping noise coming from behind me. I’m out walking Barkie on a December day. The air is still and frozen; sounds carry in the cold silence. Barkie and I stop and turn. We look down the ice covered road and listen.
It’s one of those moments when all thoughts cease, replaced by pure sensory input: hard gray sky, white trees leaning under snow, silvery gray road, utter silence except for the odd scraping sound.
Then Barkie does what he does best. He is scared, bristles up, firing off barks like a little cannon. Around the corner comes my neighbor dragging a sled. He stops and waves. Barkie glares with pathetic small dog ferocity.
“Hey, Arnie,” I say. It’s my neighbor, a gentleman of eighty or so, old enough to have that transparent look people get when they are ready for fade out. He’s stepping carefully on the ice, accompanied by the scraping noise as the sled skitters along behind him.
My first thought is “Oh no, he can’t go sledding; he’ll put himself in the hospital.” But he looks so pleased with himself, pulling the sled up the gentle incline of the road. He stops to chat.
Turns out the sled is an original Fearless Flyer, built in Pennslynannia decades ago. It was a Christmas gift brought home by Arnie’s father who knew the guy who owned the factory that produced the first Flexible Flyer sleds. Arnie lived in the same neighborhood as the factory. As Arnie relates the history of the sled, a Christmas card picture of urban America circa 1920 appears in my head: small houses, a factory in the background, kids sledding in the streets between horse drawn carts and oldtimey cars. Of course, to be realistic the snow would be gray with coal dust.
Arnie’s plan is to pull this sled up to the top of the road and ride it back down the slope to his house.
Arnie has been pulling that sled along behind him all of his life. It started life, as Arnie did, in Pensylvannia, and now it lives with Arnie on the UP of Michigan. He is going to ride that sled one last time before giving the sled away to his son who lives in snowless California.
If I was Arnie’s kid, I would treasure that sled like an icon.
Maybe Arnie’s son will hang the sled on the wall like a work of art; however, the sled’s days are numbered. After all, even if Arnie’s kid loves the sled, will it probably won’t mean much to Arnie’s grandchildren. Is it grasping to hang on to the things that represent memories? Grasping is a Buddhist concept. It’s a behavior to avoid. The easiest way to think of grasping is to equate it with greed, but it means greed for anything: material things, money, life, even love. It even means greed for enlightenment.
If I count up the number of dogs that I have rescued and feel pride in the number (twenty two, if you are wondering) than I am grasping the experiences, hanging on for pride’s sake.
On the other hand, if I think of a dog, if I feel empathy for the dog and joy in the happiness the dog has found, I am not grasping. I am approaching the selflessness which is a prerequisite for wisdom.
So it isn’t necessarily grasping to value stuff; it’s the meaning one attaches to the stuff that makes the difference. My house is cluttered from floor to ceiling with mementos. I have over twenty diaries, too boring for anyone to read, piles of scrapbooks and photo albums, plus shelves of just stuff—bones, feathers, pottery shards, arrow heads, beads, maps with routes marked, even a piece of bicycle tire. My poor nieces will inherit all of this.
There’s a quote to the effect that an unexamined life is not worth living. Ann Landers turned that around and said that an unlived life is not worth examining. All this clutter and the diaries and scrapbooks and stuff are pieces of the life I have lived and my ongoing attempts to examine it. It might be grasping for me to keep all this stuff, but I don’t think my examinations have come to a conclusion yet.
Whether I ever get wisdom or not, my nieces can in good conscience throw all my stuff in the trash after my demise. They won’t be throwing me in the trash, after all, and I won’t be around to be grasping of the stuff, nor will I be around to examine my life. There’s a couple of paintings that I hope will survive my death however, not for my sake, but because the paintings are good and deserve to keep on living, delighting someone somewhere. I will spell that out in my will: toss everything if you wish, but please find a good home for the paintings.
Arnie continues up the road. Barkie watches him, baffled. Why is he dragging that noisy sled behind him? Barkie wants to keep walking. But, instead, I pull him over the side of the road to wait. I want see Arnie’s last ride.