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Anti-Matter

One woman discovers that stripping away unnecessary belongings is an express ticket to happiness.

By Mary Sojourner

simplicity

I can't fully explain why the less I have, the more connected I feel. The link between not owning and belonging is cellular. I remember the three days alone at Boyd's Pond, how I had packed enough for a family of six. And the first solo trip west, my bags filled with books and embroidery and patchwork I never touched. My first river trip, I carried a Walkman and a dozen tapes. They never left the dry bag.

I love buying clothes at Goodwill and returning them when they no longer feel right on my body. I buy books in our local bookstores, then recycle them at another. My cabin is crammed with art and feathers and rocks, but most of the furniture was here when I rented the cabin: two battered dressers, raw pine kitchen cupboards, and a dozen shelves made from milk crates and old lumber. The only items left from my life back east are my rolltop desk and the secondhand library chair that Nicholas, my former beloved, gave me for my 39th birthday.

My truck is 12 years old. It has four cylinders. There have been casino trips when I pushed it to 85 miles an hour. There is just enough room under its camper shell for me to sleep. I have driven across the country with a food box, a stove, and a backpack full of clothes. None of this is because of political beliefs; all of it is because it brings me joy, a joy mysterious and ordinary.

It is strange to remember the years when mail-order catalogs filled the kitchen table, when an East Coast friend gave me a cloth bag carrying the logo "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." Most of the $40 T-shirts and museum reproductions and high-tech garden tools that I never used are gone, given as gifts or taken to Goodwill. Not one of them gave me even half the pleasure their absence has.

I got lucky. A wild bird brought me to this jackpot of less. A juvenile orange flicker came into my cabin one August night a dozen years ago. I tried to catch it. The bird fled behind the stove, beyond my reach. The cats gathered in the kitchen. I banged the side of the stove. The bird was silent. I had no choice but to let it be.

I went back to bed and tried to sleep. There was silence in the kitchen. One by one, the cats curled up around me. I watched the dark in the windows begin to fade and fell asleep.

When I woke, the cats were gone. I climbed out of bed, lit my morning candle, and walked into the living room. The cats sat in a row at the foot of the old couch. The flicker sat on the backrest and regarded the cats and me with perfect calm.

I opened the back door. Morning was delicate green, light and shadow playing across the pine duff. I pulled off my old workshirt and gathered the flicker into its folds. The bird did not move.

I carried the bird to the back porch and unfolded the shirt. For a long moment, the bird rested in the cloth. I thought it might be tangled and took it into my hands. Again, it was still. Then, with a wing-beat that could have been a breath, the bird flew out straight toward a young pine.

I will never forget the sensation of release. And the four orange-and-black feathers I found lying on the kitchen floor.

Enough. More than enough.

Excerpted from Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire, by Mary Sojourner. Copyright 2004 by Mary Sojourner. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y. Mary Sojourner writes commentaries for National Public Radio and is the author of several books, including the novel Sisters of the Dream and the short-story collection Delicate. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, in a scrap-lumber cabin, where she completed her second novel, Going Through Ghosts.



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Reader Comments

LivingTree

I enjoy your emails and magazine very much. However, I resent the political ads intruding. These should not be allowed in my opinion. I am not a Barack Obama supporter and do not wish to see his or his wife's face whenever I read your articles!

janel

I am wringing all the sweetness I can from this story.

Regina

I loved this story; her descriptiveness moved me almost to tears. I confess to being a hoarder, and this has, I believe, finally tipped the scales in the other direction. Thank you!

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