The Meaning of ‘Things’

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My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

My father-in-law loved kitchen gadgets. I suppose he thought they made his life easier. No doubt, they made his food healthier and tastier, and his ingredients more fresh. He owned more than one food processor, two air fryers, four juicers, a vacuum sealer, and more woks and frying pans than could ever fit in his kitchen cupboards – so he stored them in his study.

He also loved movies, but he loved a good deal even more. So, he would borrow movies from the library, copy them onto a compact disc, and then store them in perfectly organized file boxes, which he kept in a series of shelves in his front hall. He had hundreds of these discs. Thousands, even. The shelves were absolutely packed with them, yet I doubt he ever even watched most of them.

He owned shelves and shelves of books, his closet was packed with clothes, and he was starting to build an extensive tool collection. He also filled more than 15 external hard drives with miscellaneous TV recordings. Why did he do this? What was he trying to capture?

You may have noticed that I’m referring to my father-in-law in the past tense. That’s because he died a few weeks ago. Suddenly. Dramatically. None of us were expecting it. His death came completely out of the blue, on a sunny August day, while everyone else was out on vacation enjoying the superb, late-summer weather.

Perhaps we should have known. Or, at least suspected. He’d been struggling with frequent diarrhea, which then progressed to include uncomfortable bloating. In the end, it turned out to be pancreatic cancer. He died less than two weeks after he was diagnosed, before the cancer oncologist could even meet with him to talk about treatment options. The shock of this quick succession of events required time to process. I did nothing but stare at the wall for two days.

I think most everyone has had the experience of cleaning out the home of a recently deceased relative and taken note of all of their things. The things that were so important to them, that they worried over, that they spent outrageous sums of money on. They are all that’s left of my father-in-law now. Our task is to scoop these items up, decide if we want to keep them, and then dump them into boxes and cart them away.

It all feels so disrespectful, and so sad. You become aware, as never before, of how unimportant ‘things’ really are.

My friend Melissa says something often: “Collect memories, not things”. She probably heard it from someone else, but it still resonates with me now. She spends her money and time on experiences: hikes, concerts, parties, friends, and of course, on time with her children and grand-children. She takes pictures. Countless pictures. She captures smiles, funny moments, memorable times.

Looking around me now at all the ‘debris’ my father-in-law has left in his wake, I think she has the right idea. When I die, I don’t want my children to have to clean expensive clothes out of my closet, or weighty, yet meaningless trinkets from my shelves. For the remaining years of my life, I want my heart to sing, not from any power I’ve obtained or from any things that I’ve bought, but from moments of joy and connection with others.

Once we’re gone – and at some unknown hour we will all go – everything we own will turn to dust. It will just be some junk that someone else has to clear away. All of the countless, precious things we have collected will no longer hold any meaning, to us or to others.

So, why not focus on one another instead? Why not observe and listen to the incredibly unique, multi-faceted people sitting all around us, the ones who are themselves ephemeral, flickering lights in the dark. At least these gems will remember some small part of us when were gone. They’ll have a few stories to tell, they’ll warm themselves with laughter, and drink to the memory of our finest hours.

In the end, isn’t that the most meaningful memorial we could hope for? And as a bonus, it doesn’t add to the size of the city garbage dump.

About the Author: Rebecca Wong has a BA in English Literature from the University of Waterloo and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She studied at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine under respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le, and graduated from the East West School of Planetary Herbology under Michael Tierra. She received training as a yoga teacher at The Branches in Kitchener/Waterloo, and therapeutic yoga teacher training from the School for Somatic Soulwork under Deniz Aydoslu. She now teaches yoga for anxiety, depression and burnout at Rebecca's Restful Yoga Studio in Toronto.

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