[I originally posted this back in 2006. I like it, though it makes me sound pretty depressed.]
“You haven’t washed your sheets since when?”
“November,” I tell my roommate. “So? They aren’t that dirty.”
“But all your skin comes off in your bed.”
I pause for a moment. That is kind of disgusting, when you think about it. It’s true. I am slowly flaking off, depositing bits of myself around the world as I live, replacing them with new bits. Someone once told me that you replace all of your cells every seven years. That means every seven years you are literally, physically, a different person.
I’m not sure what this means. This fact might explain why I am now allergic to cats, and don’t really like fruit snacks anymore. But it seems somehow deeper, but I am reluctant to start rambling about how every seven years we are new people, and oh, isn’t that just so refreshing and beautiful. It seems more like we are constantly decaying, each moment of our lives our body struggles to replace all that we are losing, and every moment, past a certain point in our 20s, it gets worse and worse at it. Our cheeks start to sag a little, our hair doesn’t come back in the same places. Each time I wash my sheets or clean my clothes, I am washing away my old cells, once young cells. I am, literally, washing away what I used to be.
Somewhere on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, there’s a large earthworks sculpture called Spiral Jetty. It is exactly what the name suggests, a large spiral jetty jutting out into the water. Slowly, it is being washed away, eroded over decades. There is now a debate over whether the late artist, Robert Smithson, would have wanted it rebuilt. Maybe replace those bits washed away once, or twice, but if I were him, I would let the thing erode away, become part of the sediment and rock sculptures at the bottom of lake. It’s more human that way, more compelling precisely because of it is temporary.
“…You should really wash your sheets.”
It’s not long after this conversation that I wash my sheets. It’s a small improvement. Dirty clothes wait to be dumped in the washing machine and boxes of junk that I mean to donate to goodwill sit in the living room. It’s difficult not to leave a mess in the place you live, easier just to deposit things as you go along, put them all away at once over a weekend. During my freshman year of college we threw our laundry behind the couch, and my desk was surrounded by a carpet of discarded papers. Eventually I would make my way down to laundry room, then throw out the papers, many of them covered with my notes and writing. I still have notebooks and folders filled with my writing, papers I wrote in high school and college, attempts at writing fiction. I will save these for a while, and I’ll throw them away when I am ready. Or dead.
That is why our cells come off when we are sleeping: because if we were awake, we would never get rid of them.
“People just throw away all that perfectly good furniture and buy new stuff without even trying to fix it.” My dad has brought home the shell of a dresser, a chair with no seat, and some wooden boards. “What?” he asks when I give him a funny look. He found these in a pile by someone’s trash, and has big plans for them. They will live behind our garage for a while until he refurbishes them or uses them in a project or he breaks them up for kindling. He has taken to driving the van instead of the car they bought for him because he can better fit the junk he finds along the road in the trunk. He bemoans old chairs, slightly broken vacuum cleaners, and tarnished scrap metal people toss away without a second thought.
My parents never throw anything away. The old newspapers are saved all year to start fires during the two weeks of Texas winter, every scarp of wood is piled in the shed for use with a future project, banana peels and grass clippings are dumped in the compost pile in the back corner of our little back yard. And I am the same. While I don’t pick up junk from the side of the road, I cannot get rid of anything without a fight. The uncomfortable shoes that cost ten bucks, the old X-men action figures, the cowboy shirt that doesn’t fit and I don’t like but I might one day change my mind about. It doesn’t help my problem that I one day used that shirt when we all went to see Brokeback Mountain dressed in boots and jeans and cowboy shirts and I had to dig it out of the box of clothes I was going to take to Goodwill someday. My closet is filled with all the junk that I should probably discard. But once I give those things up, I invariably think of something I wish you had saved, stories I wrote in the 4th grade, pictures of my friends from high school, my G.I. Joes.
Partially I, like my parents, hold on to things because it is wasteful to do otherwise. If I throw everything that begins to lose its shine away, I’ll end up throwing away my favorite books, and a nice old chair that just needs a little work. But maybe I also accumulate these things to compensate for the things I am losing. My oldest memories, friends I’ve lost touch with, certain opportunities. Getting rid of them means I’ve got to move on, make a decision about what I need, and don’t need, in my life. Discard a little of myself, or who I used to be, moving a little closer to my life, and, I guess, my death.