I’m standing in an empty house in which I used to live. My life is in boxes loaded on a truck, each labeled in scrawled shorthand so that the trained professionals to whom I’ve entrusted my existence know how to reassemble them into recognizable form. They’re all nice guys – Bill, the genial driver who seems like he’d be more at home in an academic setting; Lee, the soft-spoken Woody Allen fan; and Ken, the youngest, who talks a blue streak but can lift three heavy boxes on his back without straining. Still, I can’t help feeling a bit uneasy.
Bill tries to calm my nerves a bit by telling me that random truck explosions “rarely happen,” but adds that the company can’t insure “collections.” My whole life is a collection, one I’ve been amassing since the age of 15, when I first started earning my own money. It’s now grown beyond my ability to move it, and roughly half of it remains in my mother’s garage in Massachusetts. The other half fills at least a dozen large moving boxes, and it’s more comics and CDs and tapes than any one person needs. And yet I’m certain, since it’s happened before, that the loss of any one part of this collection would leave a massive, gaping hole in my well-being until it’s replaced.
I know, deep down, that none of this stuff really matters. It’s just funny pictures and shiny metal discs, plastic reels and magnetic tape. And yet to me, it’s my life frozen in time, a series of mile markers delineating moments I can’t get back, but can always relive. I buy an absurd amount of music and story during a year, but the best of it – the ones that imprint the very moment you first heard or read it on your brain forever – make the bulk of the collection worthwhile. I buy so much stuff because my favorites have always come into my life accidentally or tangentially, and I don’t want to miss out on those experiences. A not-so-good album with a great guitar player on it, for example, could lead to a brilliant album by that guitar player, one I never would have bought without the first one leading me there. Hence, that not-so-good album becomes just as important and vital to the collection as the brilliant one.
I suppose I collect artistic experiences because my personal experiences are always changing and fluid. At least, it seems that way whenever I’m standing in an empty house, as I am now, and thinking back on another concluded chapter. “I don’t live here anymore” is a simple, declarative statement, but trust me, it loses none of its indescribably sad power through repeated use. This is the third time in as many years that I’ve looked around an empty home and said those words to myself.
I don’t live here anymore.
I also collect artistic experiences because they often lead to personal ones. I met Jeff Picchioni, for example, during my long-haired ’80s metalhead days, another chapter long since closed. I was 16, I think, when Steve Pelland introduced us, and the three of us bonded over our shared love of wailing guitars and thundering drums. Pell and I would make these lists of the best guitarists, bassists, singers, etc. Pic never seemed to get into the list-making aspects of fandom, but he knew what he liked, and as time went on and both Pell and I discovered other forms of music we liked better, Pic retained his enduring fondness for ’80s metal. He still had it the last time I saw him, roughly five years ago. Amazingly, Pic found a charming girl named Heidi who also had a thing for hair metal, and the two got married almost a decade ago.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Pic lately, because one of his favorite bands was Great White, whose recent show in Warwick, Rhode Island led to 97 deaths in a tragic fire. Warwick isn’t that far from Bellingham, Mass., where Jeff and Heidi lived last time I talked to them. I keep telling myself that there’s just no way they were there, as I doggedly scan lists of identified victims. They’ve released names and photos of about half of them now, and no sign of the Picchionis, but I’m still worried.
And that gnawing feeling in my gut each time I search for their names is all the proof I need that my separate lifetimes in separate states are all connected. It’s like my record collection in a way – if one irreplaceable piece of it is lost, a hole opens up that can’t be filled. It’s a stupid analogy, and maybe I’m less human for thinking of life as a bunch of collected experiences and stories, but it’s how I’m wired, and I’m sorry, and I just really hope Jeff is okay. There are a million and one reasons why Pic wouldn’t have gone to Warwick, and only one that he would have – he loves Great White even more than I do, and I probably would have gone.
The finality of death, even possible and unlikely death, puts a somber tint on my weekend of packing and loading my old life into a truck. If I needed another sad reminder that my life is connected and not just a bunch of smaller lives in different states, it’s that every time I do this, I promise that the next life will be better, bigger, bolder than the last. And it never really is – I move, I get a job, I buy a lot of things and I never get around to writing any of the half-dozen stories and novels floating around in my head. I’ve had so much practice at holding on to my childhood that it probably won’t go now unless I make it go.
But if art is life, and in many ways it is for me, then this year seems like a good one to finally start really living mine. Several long-running passions of mine are concluding in the coming months, most notably Star Wars, the final episode of which bows in 2005, when I’ll be 30. Just this morning, official confirmation came in that this season is the last for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the finest shows ever on television, and full of characters whom I love desperately. In March of 2004, Dave Sim brings his 300-issue comic book epic Cerebus to a close. I’ve been reading that book for more than 10 years. Similarly, Jeff Smith’s Bone, one of the first indie comics I ever bought, concludes in eight months at issue 55. I’ve been reading that one since 1992.
And if more end-of-childhood symbolism is needed, there’s always Mr. Fred Rogers, who died today of cancer. In a lot of ways, Rogers may have been the last vestige of human decency still on the airwaves. Like Charles Schultz, Rogers died shortly after bringing his life’s work to a close – the last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired last year. Like most kids, I grew up on Mr. Rogers, and used to imagine that the paintings on my walls at home were my own Picture Pictures, and that I could see anywhere by looking through them. It’s strange that his death has affected me this much, but it’s another irreplaceable piece of my collected life that’s gone missing.
In a week’s time, I’ll be settled into my new life, in a new house decorated with all my old stuff. But the reason the collection continues to grow is that new experiences are always just as important as collected ones. We’re like sharks – without constant forward motion, we stagnate and die, and even though that process usually takes around 80 years, some of us die long before that. There’s magic in moments, even ones that fill boxes and take three people to move out of your house, and there are always new moments to look forward to.
Or so I think, as I take my last look around what I’m coming to accept as my old house, the place where I used to live. It’s a strange thing, but in some way, you never really leave a place behind as long as there are people and experiences you treasure. Keeping a collection of those things somehow makes it easier to move on. And even if that collection grows so large that moving it is a daunting task, it’s always worth it to take everything. You never know what you’ll eventually miss.
See you in line Tuesday morning.