Readers write about Possession


Share, two-year old Gwendolyn said as she walked over to cousin Alexander and took her toy away from him. We adults were amused that she said share when she clearly meant mine.

As a two-year-old, Gwendolyn was at the stage where she was figuring out who she was (“me”) and what was hers (“mine”). It was natural to be possessive.

No doubt the word share was used at daycare. But sharing is a complex idea that a child may not have the cognitive and emotional skills to understand until the late threes or fours. She has to understand that the toy will still be hers even if another child plays with it for a while. She needs some empathy for the other child, some understanding that he might enjoy her toy and she might enjoy letting him use it.

How often do we adults take a mine rather than a share attitude toward our resources—our money, our goods, our time, our talents? We think, I worked hard for what I’ve got—it’s mine. My family and I might need these resources—they’re ours. It’s part of our individualist ethic.

That ethic may—or may not—be tempered by a sense of community, a sense that we would all be better off if we pooled our resources to provide schools, roads, law enforcement, and other goods and services. In order words, we might be better off if we share. As a society, we’re always debating—how much to share, in what ways, and for what purposes.

-Judy Davis, The Dalles


The Basement

It’s been in my thoughts—the basement and what it’s for—since I bought this house, so for the last eighteen years. Instead of proposing that he move into my newly purchased house, my then-boyfriend (now husband) asked if he could store a few things in the basement.

Those few things included sixty pairs of shoes, fifty suits, thirty vintage Hawaiian shirts and more. A lot more. Now, there are lamps and computers, dusty paperbacks with rough gray paper, and much of what they’ve sold "as is" at IKEA.

By contrast, I am a minimalist. I like to discard. Recently, an injury put me in a wheelchair. It’s a silver lining, I suppose, that now I don’t see the basement and its myriad contents.

My husband, also my caregiver, escapes multiple demands in the basement. Before Covid, he ironed work clothes while listening to heavy metal albums he played on a turntable made in the 1950s.

The other day, I asked why he collected old toys.  Probably because I was genuinely curious, not expressing exasperation like usual, my husband said collecting fills some hole from a poor childhood. In other words, a vintage Evel Knievel race car set wasn’t just kitschy cool. It stood in for the one he couldn’t have when he was a boy. Normally, he would pretend such an insight, trying to get a laugh.  But this time was sincere.

Maybe his vulnerable confession was because the economic downturn left us shell-shocked. Facing a tax-based shortfall so large as to be hard to fathom, my husband’s employer laid him off. Afterwards, we relied on unemployment, SSI, and a tiny private disability policy, which pre-Covid we called my allowance.

Now we’re always home. I grapple with what hope looks like from where I sit. It’s dispiriting that my husband wears wrinkled shirts. He says not ironing saves time, and he can help me instead.

It felt new and different, yet familiar, when I happened to suggest the other day that my husband wear “something vintage.” Not long after, he emerged from the basement wearing creased trousers, an ironed shirt, and shiny leather shoes. I could tell he was back. He danced around the kitchen. It felt light, yet important, that in a time in which loss is the norm, the virus had not taken away this vain, glorious, impractical, necessary joy.

-Kelly Myers, Portland


Slipping Away

Momma always told me nothing in life is permanent, especially people. Despite our efforts to keep things the same, they will inevitably change; despite our desire to keep things to ourselves, they will inevitably leave us, or us them. I know the more I try to hold onto what is dear, the quicker it will flee.

I thought I understood possession when I came to Portland. But little did I know, a hard lesson awaited me. In a year, I watched as my relationship, my friendships, and my security all melted away. They were like ice cubes in my hands, dripping between my fingers as I squeezed tighter. Even my creativity, something I once thought innate to my being, faded like an old polaroid as I tried hard to preserve it. I had to learn to let go of these things, not expecting them to return.  Most of them would not.

Portland also taught me another lesson about possession through my Blackness. Schools often depict white supremacy as a cross-burning, white-hooded demon when in reality it is an invisible cancer that has metastasized to American society. Portland hosts a modern strain of white supremacy—one with seemingly benign symptoms. People are nice, and they “love everyone,” but “everyone” is not here. White people are literally supreme here; they own everything—they are everything—yet they seem blissfully unaware of it. I can’t help but wonder if their state of possession is stabilized by a lack of awareness. If they found out what they had, would it slip through their fingers, as possessions tend to do? Or would they only see it as it waned into nothingness, proving true the idiom “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”?

I still sometimes wonder about my possessions. When I do, fear pierces my heart, for I know that if I become hip to the scene, it will fade away. But perhaps I should learn to love this process, rather than fear its imminence. Perhaps I should love these things while I still can—love them because I know one day, they will leave me.

After all, they were gone the moment I grasped them.

-Devin Dabney, Portland


Property and Wealth

In late summer 2020, Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, and Medford, Oregon were all touched by the Almeda Fire. I had three friends lose their homes and belongings. Other friends had to evacuate, and many of us were in some phase of evacuation readiness. My wife Liz and I were one of the latter. We were lucky and never had to evacuate.

We packed our car in readiness. We included our checkbooks, credit cards, and some financial records we might need. We added some basic clothing. Also packed was some food for Liz. She is a severe Celiac, so we loaded up on food that would not make her sick. Me? I can eat anything.

As I pondered how to finish off our car packing, I paused and looked at what had been our home for the past three decades. Emotions flooded me. This property contained almost all our physical possessions and I was sad to contemplate the potential loss of years of work. What small amount of our property should I pack? It seemed a futile exercise. Pack the TV? Maybe our CD collection? What property was most important?

Liz and I made our decision. I got some boxes and packed about twenty photo albums and scrapbooks and loaded them into the car trunk.

The trunk now contained our wealth. These albums and scrapbooks are filled with a record of our times at the beach, our families, our loved ones, friends alive and dead, precious letters, and records of the people that are the whole cloth of our lives.

Thankfully, we were never issued the evacuation order. After a few days, we were given the all-clear to remain in our home. I felt a bit guilty because I now knew three of my friends—and countless others—had lost almost everything, and we had not. Survivor guilt is real.

I unpacked our car. It wasn’t a large task. However, for some days, I left the car partially packed just in case. What I left in the car trunk for those extra few days was our “wealth.” The photo albums and scrapbooks were the last things I unpacked and took back into the house. I did that task over several days, going through each album and scrapbook and reliving the wealth of my life. Property or no property, I am a wealthy man.

-Larry Slessler, Ashland


We Belong to the Earth

William Stafford wrote, “The earth says have a place, be what that place requires.” I have. And I try my best to be just that.

The place where I wake up each day, beauty in all directions, looks out on mountains and river and green fields. The steadfastness of the natural world provides solitude and solace during this time when the human world looks so different from a year ago. This is a place that many others love as much as I do, coming in cars and buses and on bikes to breathe in its fresh air. It’s hard to find a path to walk in the forest without a crowd these days. I wonder, with so many of us here now, what it means to be what the place requires.

I live in a home built two centuries past, on land once freely given to White men, later divided and divided again, deeds in exchange for money. The right to own private property established generational wealth for some, in a country built on genocide and slavery. I, a woman, eventually gained the right to own land too, to join the club, though I am still an anomaly in a community of people where many live on roads that share their last names.

I grow food and plant trees, make space for wildlife, and invite pollinators to enjoy the flowers. The land rewards me generously in sustenance and peace and beauty. I say thank you every day for the opportunity to be in this place, though I know that I am merely the steward for a  moment in time. Earnest as I am in caring for the land, the home, paying the mortgage and the taxes, my time here is short, and this place will be here long after me at the mercy of whomever might come next. May they love this place as much as I do and learn to be what this place requires. May they honor all things living here before them and all that will follow.

While likely not his exact words, Chief Seattle gets credit for reminding us, “The Earth does not  belong to us, we belong to the Earth.” We humans have obligations and responsibilities to our places—to walk gently, care deeply, honor our privilege, show gratitude to the Earth for our belonging.

-Jennifer O'Donnell, Corbett


I Want You to Want Me

It wasn’t only about sex. Sex was a fantastic side effect, not the point.

Twenty years into my marriage, I felt like an old chair. The kind you still use but don’t even look at, except to note the things you never liked about it. Maybe you kick it a bit, by accident.

If I’d been a cozy reading chair with tea stains, I might have stayed put. Or maybe a nice dining room chair: a custom order deliberately mismatched with the others, still occasionally rubbed with lemon oil and (briefly) admired.

Have you ever lived in a place with no chairs? Almost everything takes more effort—eating, writing, thinking. Try it. The details are too mundane to imagine.

I wasn’t always an old chair, though. Down the street at a neighbor’s wedding, I was something else. At least, the neighbor’s new brother-in-law thought so. I didn’t notice him then, not even enough to say, “Not my type.” But he saw something he wanted, and he played a long game to get it.

Too much objectification? Try living without it.

Over dinner at the neighbor’s, a Christmas party, gossip, Facebook friending, messages, he ponied up old bait like, “Your husband’s a lucky guy.” I didn’t want to hear it. But I listened.

By definition, possessions get used. But the precious ones get treated in a way that preserves and even enhances them. The affair was tacky and predictable, but it didn’t feel that way. It turned my volume up. I was played. But I was on. And finally, out.

Any vintage vendor will tell you: Chairs fall apart the fastest. Originals need to be restored. It’ll take some time, and it’s not cheap. It all depends on how much you want it.

-Noël Pontheiux, Portland


What's Left Behind

The spinning wheel stands just inside the front door, the first thing people notice when they enter my home. It’s a big walker wheel, made for my great grandmother when the family moved from Kentucky to Illinois before the Civil War. By the window opposite is the rocking chair in which my grandmother rocked me and my father before me, the spindles on its back hand-turned on a lathe by my great grandfather, who made it for her. The wardrobe trunk in the bedroom journeyed to China with my missionary grandparents in 1903. One of its hangers holds the white embroidered cap my mother wore for her christening in 1913, the long lacey gown nestled safe in a drawer. On the wall is a painting of a scene in Iceland—farm house, barren trees, fields, and hillsides white with snow—bequeathed to me by my mother’s sister, along with two children’s books about Iceland, where her parents were born. In each room there is something: nested Chinese teak tables, glass-fronted bookcases, cracked ceramic bowls mended with metal staples, the camera that documented South China mission scenes, a lacquer incense bowl with a note penned by my grandmother: “Used by a poor family in Chhia”-nâng-ke. It is the 'po ho noíì kia” kâi'—the bowl used for the incense sticks which are lighted and offered to the gods so that the children of the family may be protected. The bowl, filled with ashes into which the incense sticks are thrust, is placed above the bed, in some cases at the foot of the bed. (This is not used where there are no children.)”

      My mother sang me Icelandic lullabies; my father’s first language was Chinese. I live in a private museum filled with objects silently pleading, “Don’t let this heritage die.” I have no children, no use for the incense bowl, the camera, the spinning wheel. My brother and I, the last branches of two family trees, will leave only possessions behind.

-Kathleen Worley, Portland


Belonging, Family, Language


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Also in this Issue

From the Director: The Great Divide

Editor's Note: Possession

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Lies of Discovery

Who's Being Left Out?

Can the Land Make Us One People?


Where We Store Shame

The Things We Carry


People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading