The Real Stuff of Life
By Kara Martinez Bachman
Sometimes change can come in an instant, as it did on the day I peeped through a dirty window at the stuff of my life, scattered and waterlogged.
Our home was located near the eye of the storm, and suffered scarring and indignity at the angry hands of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005.
I remember it clearly. On this date, while my family was safely hunkered down in a motel, the unruly storm rushed in with a mean surge that could never have been fully predicted. It took with it many lives and many livelihoods. It also took with it a whole bunch of our stuff.
Before the storm, stuff had real value to me. I loved having shelves and shelves of hardcover books. I loved novels, and anthologies of great old writers, and big art books that were perfect for angling the right way on the coffee table. I also loved that coffee table! I prized the furniture we had collected over the years, and the paintings that hung on the walls. I loved our upright piano, never letting people set their glasses on its smooth wooden cabinet.
I used to yell at the kids if they rested dirty sneakers on the sofa, or dropped Kool-Aid in the tile grout. I have never been a neat-freak, but would definitely get upset if they messed with my stuff. I loved stuff.
But then, something happened on the morning after the storm. A sure realization came rushing in like the floodwaters that had just destroyed virtually every community for fifty miles around; this moment came when I peered through our window. What I saw, as I waited for my husband to get the kids out of their car seats and open the front door, brought me to my knees: our stuff, strewn, toppled, shattered or waterlogged. Since we were some of the first to return to the neighborhood after the evacuation, we hadn’t realized the extent of the damage; we hadn’t even realized, at first, that the waters had risen inside our walls. We had thought our street impervious, since it sat almost twenty feet above sea level.
But there it all was: the sofa, more than sneaker-dirty, flooded with putrid bloat. The potted plants. My books. That old antique drop-leaf table of my great aunt’s. My kids’ plush toys, their smiling googly-eyes sadly unaware of the dire situation. My favorite book of photographs, lying wet and ink-runny by the door, as if to greet me with the bad news.
When I peeked through that skinny sidelight window next to the front door, my entire world seemed to crumble in a blink. But in that moment I also let go of a bad and limiting notion, about the prestige of the the ownership of things.
My new attitude toward material things was accurately captured in an editorial comic strip that ran in a newspaper some time after the storm. The first frame depicts a man, saying something along the lines of: “The storm got our car, our house, and all of our belongings…” In the next frame, we see him holding his loved ones, and the sentence is completed: “… but it didn’t get anything important.” I’m not sure where I saw the strip, but it stuck with me because it accurately described my moment of instantly recognizing what things matter most in life.
It may seem cliché, but there’s something about unexpectedly losing so much at once that really puts endless hours of mall shopping and tending to our precious belongings into proper perspective. I honestly understood in that moment (and do carry that moment with me every day still) that it isn’t the material things of life that will yield happiness, but the stuff of our spirits. That is what we should tend to. That is where we will find the real prestige.
I now carry daily the feeling that we shouldn’t be here to acquire, but to do things that nourish our inner lives. We should write. Hike. Meditate. Sing. I’m not implying there’s anything wrong with having nice things. Don’t misunderstand; we all need our treats. But I have changed how I think about those treats. I’d now never place them ahead of people, or ahead of my family’s creative life. I would never make the same kind of stink about tennis shoes on the couch, or spills in the grout. I’d trade a clean couch for a song. What’s more, I would never, ever want to own any kind of mansion, as a mansion can suddenly–without warning, on a morning in late summer–become no more than a slab. The real things we build–the affection, the art, the memories–are what remain forever.
I decided in that moment ten years ago, when I looked in horror through that glass pane at our soggy piano lying on its side, that I would change what I value, and focus more on the songs than on the instruments. Now, I have confidence in this simple fact: I will never, ever be afraid to peep through any window. The only window that matters is the one that frames our own carefully tended inner lives.
Kara Martinez Bachman is author of the new women’s humor essay collection, “Kissing the Crisis: Field Notes on Foul-Mouthed Babies, Disenchanted Women and Careening into Middle Age,” published by Quill Driver Books. Her work has been heard on NPR radio and has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Writer, Funny Times, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Find out more about “Kissing the Crisis” by visiting the book’s Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Kissing-Crisis-Foul-Mouthed-Disenchanted-Careening/dp/1610352904/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474660008&sr=8-1&keywords=kissing+the+crisis