When Irene whistled, I listened to Erykah. Curled on a daybed in the dark, I rummaged for ways to salvage stuff in the midst of a hurricane when Badu pleaded to the self-proclaimed bag lady on a drained battery to let it go.
This summer, I returned to my Virginia hometown to weather a different kind of storm. Separated from my partner and seeking a homeplace to complete research for my “tenure” book, I found myself searching in a cardboard box—a time capsule, which housed old academic awards, articles, and origami-folded, water-stained yes-no-will-you-go-with-me love letters that date back to the 6th grade. I sifted through old things to seek some form of validation or affirmation after being told by faculty unfamiliar with women of color knowledge production that my work was too little, and being told by my partner familiar with yes-man women that our relationship was too much. Retreating home to recover and write felt right until I had no electricity and I began bumping into that box and all of the baggage that I brought back with me.
And then, the hurricane came. The hurricane came when I realized the amount the stuff I carried. There was the physical stuff dispersed in offices, storage facilities, my car, my “hobo” purse, and other folks’ houses; the virtual stuff that needed constant attention lest I risked losing data or (meaningful) connections; and, the psychic stuff of growing up poor, black and female and feeling the pressure to do more and be more so that others would see me as equal. The weight of stuff seemed to be all-consuming.
Our stuff is a product of living in a consumer capitalist culture, which encourages us to accumulate things to feed the economy, and to feed our feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction. Shows, such as Hoarders, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars represent a new genre of reality television that captures how we deal with it in our lives. After experiencing one day without electricity, my father fueled a generator for a few hours to power deep freezers, a George Foreman grill, and a portable television because we didn’t want to lose the already thawed food or the chatter that cut the silence when we ate dinner. We sat together, yet we experienced emptiness. It was as if the room had to be filled with something other than ourselves.
Before Irene, it would have been difficult for me to imagine voluntarily moving to a new space with a single suitcase. Today, I am abandoning the bag lady for the kinda (self) love that Badu, Bambara and Crunkadelic said would make life better. It might not be the easiest thing to do, but shedding some of the stuff that I have held onto for years might make handling life’s unexpected disasters lighter.