He Sent Our Souls to Goodwill

He Sent Our Souls to Goodwill

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Objects are waste. That is what I was brought up to believe.

When I was a child, my father would come thundering into the house with knitted brow and squinted eyes as he would appraise our living space with scorn, peering around critically at our surroundings as though he had suddenly found himself in an unwelcoming other world.

In the beginning, there is silence until the eye of his storm passes and his wrath rains down.

“What is all of this junk?!” he bellows as, resolutely, he marches into the kitchen for ammunition.

Armed with a plastic trash bag in each hand, he advances into my bedroom. The bags are bone white, their drawstrings blood red. An aura of death suddenly suffocates the safety of my room as, one by one, my objects meet their maker. Judgement Day has arrived and their fates are doled out rapidly, in quick succession along a morbid assembly line. One bag is for the objects destined to go to Goodwill, and the other holds captive those tortured souls that have been banished to the garbage.

“My friend gave me that notebook!” I cry. “That’s my only shirt left from summer camp!” I protest, but my efforts are in vain.

The tempest does not subside until it has swept my stuff aside.

When I leave home for college, my friends cannot understand why I do not decorate my room: no posters, no pictures, no knick knacks or trinkets or tchotchkes, just a suitcase stowed safely beneath a mattress colored blue like Goodwill.

The putrid, plastic odor of my items’ demise sinks into me until I too stink like garbage bags, and I too turn into an object. Enveloped within the bone white walls of my dull and deathlike dorm room, the only bright color comes from the fire alarm, painted a cadaverous shade of red that reminds me of drawstrings and gore.

I spend the summer after graduation with a dancer. Her skin is white like blank pages. Under the sun, she turns red like medjool dates. Her spirit is bright, and she teaches me something new about objects.

“Every thing has a soul,” she says.

I nod, trying to disguise the look of incredulity in my eyes.

“Objects are waste,” my mind repeats.

The dancer persists.

“I want you to give me an object,” she requests.

Her spirit is bright, and she teaches me something new about objects.

“Objects are waste,” my mind says again, and I do not know what to do.

I iron out my brow, and I straighten out my eyes, and I attempt to see the dancer’s jewels in my dad’s junk. After a while, I find things but no thing that satisfies the dancer’s demand. I need an object with a soul that speaks to her.

On the last Saturday of the summer, the dancer and I walk along the shoreline of the Hudson. We spot a clearing in the park where sand and rocks give way to water, and we go there to rejoice in the company of the river.

Between the large rocks and fine sand, a hodgepodge of pebbles and shells of kaleidoscopic shades enliven the brownish shore. Together, we scour the sand, picking up pink shells and pretty pebbles with wonder.

I hum “Happy Feelings” as I scrape my hands through the sand like a sieve. The dancer is elsewhere nearby doing the same.

I am singing now, softly, but I don’t quite remember the words.

Happy people everywhere,

Happy people here and there…

There! There it is! I’ve found it.

It is about as big as a fingernail, and it is smooth, polished by soft riverside caresses.

I need an object with a soul that speaks to her.

It stands out, a sweet golden, the color of the honey we bought at the Middle Eastern grocery in Bay Ridge last August. That was a good day.

Under the sun, dark lines emerge, crisscrossing its glimmering surface like the veins that course through her hands. I like her hands.

I bring it to her across the sand, and under the sun, she shines.

I gave her the gift of object, but she has taught me sight and sound. Wherever I go, I now see objects almost as she does, and my ears are open to their stories.

Soon, I will be leaving New York City to write my next chapter in Hanoi, Vietnam, where I will be living and working for a year as a Princeton in Asia fellow. My official job title is foreign subeditor for Việt Nam News. However, during my 12 months in Hanoi, I will spend my off-hours engaged in another sort of labor: foreign storyteller for Vietnam’s objects.

All of their souls I sold to strangers.

From September 2014 to May 2015, I travelled to three different countries – South Africa, Indonesia, and Madagascar – through a Michael Brownstein Foundation fellowship. While in each of these places, I made it my business to tell the life story of a local person every week, and I nearly succeeded. I returned to the United States with 38 of the 39 stories I had set out to tell.

This year, I engage instead in the practice of object journalism, of telling the stories of people through their things. This is a kind of work that I have never done before. It is an exercise of the awakened visual and auditory perceptions that I have learned through my friend this summer. It is also a healing of sorts as, through this work, I repair the rift wrought between me and the souls of my own stuff by garbage cans and Goodwill collection bins.

In my senior year of high school, just before setting off to South Africa, I was the one who wielded the garbage bags, metaphorically speaking. Every weekend when I had nothing better to do, I laid a bed sheet out on my front lawn, pitched a camping chair beside it, and I unloaded every object I could into the hands of paying passersby: my children’s books, my CD collection, my Winnie the Pooh VHS tapes. All of their souls I sold to strangers.

My current journey is a quest to buy back the stuff I sold five years ago by conversing with the spirits and stories of their distant kin, these objects across the ocean. Through them, I will encounter Vietnam, and in the process perhaps also I will re-discover some thing of me.