Monday, September 01, 2008


Life is not The Container Store.

Life is not my attic.

The Container Store is open and bright. Its aisles are wide and its shopping carts are shiny stainless steel.

The Container Store is filled with empty things (boxes, cabinets, trays, bottles) made from various materials (paper, glass, plastic, straw) offered for purchase by consumers who have items (socks, CD's, spices, staples) they wish to contain. The empty things are stacked and sorted on rows and rows of identical shelves set out on a grid that looks like a vast magnification of the graph paper we used in high school to plot coordinates for Miss Kemp.

The empty things are clean and clear. The empty things are beautiful and seductive. The empty things whisper, "I will make your life better if you will only take me home."

My attic looks nothing like The Container Store. It also has boxes, but none of them are empty. Some are labeled, some are not. A few match, most don't. All are gathering dust.

One box is all that is left of Ginny – her collar, her blanket, her vet records. For 11 years she came when I called, loved me when I didn't deserve loving, offered her ears as handkerchiefs. Another box is Wesleyan – birthday cards, programs, costumes, purple everything, reminders of the four years during which I figured out who I could be. There is one box that holds toys and puzzles from Adam's and Kate's childhoods, one that holds my Girl Scout badge and ceramic projects from summer camp, and a couple that hold secrets.

My attic is dark and, this time of year, hot. Some of the boxes are held together by packing tape. Some of them have been infiltrated by mice. All of them are surrounded by a great swath of itchy insulation and a maze of PVC pipe.

The room at the top of the stairs would seem to have little resemblance to the pristine, almost Aryan, perfection of The Container Store. It would seem to be, in fact, at the opposite end of the spectrum.

I heard a song not long ago that began, "My yesterdays are all boxed up and neatly put away." The first time I heard it, I whispered to myself, "Yes!" The trap door to my mind's attic was closed and I smiled at the thought that I could walk down the hall under the swinging white cord with nary a notice. I had finally learned how to remember without recriminating, how to recall without reliving, how to recollect without rewriting.

What I hadn't learned, however, is that life, with all its unflagging determination to astonish, its frustrating lack of predictability and its constant requirement for recalibration, refuses to be contained. I hadn't learned that light bends. That the opposite ends of the spectrum – the spots where The Container Store, with its fresh and unused bins, and my attic, with its bruised and bulging boxes, lie – are, with all the flexing and twisting and turning, the same place.

You can get there by holding on to everything, every photo, every calendar, every ticket stub, or you can get there by holding on to nothing, turning your pockets inside out and opening your clenched fists. But you're still going to get there, the place where you finally figure out that, no matter how hard you try, life can't be controlled.

I hadn't learned it then, the day I heard that song for the first time, but I have now. And when I listen these days, I think I hear a little irony in Sheryl Crow's voice. I think she's learned it, too. That yesterday can't be boxed up. That it is never neatly put away. That life is not The Container Store and life is nobody's attic.

Copyright 2008

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