The Art of Having Nothing
“…But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity—all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. This armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy; and it was these silver candelabra that lined our table on Christmas Eve; and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears, et cetera, et cetera. Until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.
But, of course, a thing is just a thing.”
—Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
It hung prominently on the wall of my rancher, in between a tall potted cactus and my martini bar. Pastel colors of pink and seafoam and sunshine were softly brushed onto the eggshell-white canvas, and a blurry, feminine figure leaned seductively against the right side of the painting. The decorative teakwood frame was faintly burned and polished, and a small art lamp hung above to illuminate the greatness of Nude, a painting by one of the most famous musicians in the world—Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. The watercolor was my most beloved possession, at once the most expensive art I’d ever purchased, and a maudlin connection to one of my favorite bands.
Everyone that ever came to my house asked about the painting—I loved telling friends at parties the story of the thumbprint accidently pressed under Jerry’s signature while the paint was still wet—it became the showpiece of my living room. The artwork was a part of me, a reminder of a beautiful time in my life. It brought memories of traveling and musicality and the possibilities of youth. The last time I saw Nude was when I packed it into a padded cardboard box after my divorce long ago. I stashed my cherished painting at my parents’ house and forgot about it as I continued on a journey down the rabbit hole of addiction, loss, and eventually, prison. I traveled thousands of miles without really remembering the object again.
Think about your most prized possession. The most sentimental thing you’ve ever owned in your life, the most valuable or meaningful item that you’ve ever had and just can’t live
without. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Savor the memory of how you got it; replay the moment it was transferred into your hands. Sift through your imagination to admire its beauty. See an object with such immense importance that if it was taken from you, you would be filled with a distress so resilient it would never fully leave. Visualize that single belonging you would grab if your house caught on fire. Just one thing. A picture. Something passed down. A childhood toy. An inherited gift.
Now imagine that it’s gone. Missing forever. Feel the anguish and emptiness, knowing that you will never hold it again. Experience the heartache of something so precious disappearing, the pain from attaching your happiness to that ultimately meaningless thing.
Our sense of self and value often comes from possessing these material things, from gaining wealth and objects and belongings, but our possessions are ephemeral and impermanent, and I learned that in a very hard way.
When I came to prison I lost every possession that I’d ever owned in my entire forty-three years on this Earth: vacation t-shirts, my oil-worn baseball glove, love letters, my music collection and my instruments, a signed Philadelphia Flyers hockey jersey, irreplaceable photographs, cars, all of my clothes. Everything that I’d ever bought, traded, inherited, found, or created vanished like fog from the mirrored surface of a lake at dawn, never to be seen again.
Gone were the tokens and talismans, the trinkets and kitsch, the tchotchkes and bric-a-brac I’d collected over a lifetime until my incarceration; I didn’t get to save a single keepsake from the times before, from my pre-prison days. My entire life just disappeared, like it never even existed in the first place. It took some time, but eventually I would come to realize that my possessions didn’t make that existence; things like love and family, memories and places make up the real substance of life. This understanding comes late for someone like me, but being thrown into prison will speed up one’s perspective of what’s really important.
Compared to the madness and trauma of living in a state correctional institution, losing my belongings didn’t make the top of my list of problems at first. But little by little, as days went by and I served my time, I started to reminisce about the things that I’d lost, and then I began to mourn. The loss of my things was tantamount to the death of something special, and I erroneously equated materialism with true nature.
I started to get anxious when thinking about the clay imprint of my son’s little baby feet, the necklace my favorite girlfriend bought me, the shoebox filled with concert ticket stubs and autographed miscellanea. There was no way to ever get my possessions back again, so I daydreamed about buying new things when I got out, still frustrated that I could never replace what was taken. I would crane my neck towards the past, itemizing all of the things I’d never touch again: poetry I’d poured my heart and soul into as an angst-filled teen; my first pair of ice skates, handed down from my dad; rare books and charcoal sketches. The recording of my deceased best friend singing “Sundown” with me in a bar. These relics were the memorabilia that made up the substance of my life, and without them I was walking aimless in the desert, searching for water that could never quench my thirst.
When I sat in the TV room in D-Block, staring absentmindedly at whatever was on, I’d think about my coveted big screen television and my beautiful leather couches, lying with my ex-wife and watching romantic comedies on snowy days. Unable to reconcile my loss, I’d pine for my things like a long-lost lover wishing for a second chance. I thought about how carefully I used to pack my belongings whenever I moved around, and then imagined my landlord carelessly throwing everything into a dumpster after I was arrested, pissing on my personal artifacts. It made me furious to know that all of the little odds and ends that made up my existence now rested in a landfill outside of Jacksonville, Florida—forever interred with the disposable and the unimportant. My physical history erased.
Thirty inches long. Twenty-two inches wide. Eighteen inches high. Stainless steel with two hinges and seven cubic feet of storage space. Rusted. My prison footlocker holds every possession I now own, but nothing from my past. When it dawns on me that I can fit my entire life into this metal box, I get depressed. I open the lid to see my dull reality many times a day: Ramen noodles, the Tao Te Ching, a picture of Jennifer Lawrence, books of stamps, my tablet and headphones, state-issued T-shirts, a cleverly hidden shank, Playboys, and packages of refried beans and tuna. All of the conveniences of prison and necessary holdings of a convict.
Most inmates will agree that the items in our footlockers are valuable far beyond explanation. A former cellmate has kept a four-leaf clover he found on the rec yard for ten years now, and he would be heartbroken to lose it. It’s his connection to the wonders of nature and a reminder of freedom. Another acquaintance inventories his food items from the canteen with a daily religious fanaticism, convinced that his self-worth is somehow dependent on the amount of peanuts and chips and Crystal Light packets he owns; these are his only belongings and he covets them with zeal. My best friend is a harmless stage-four hoarder—he refuses to throw anything away and can barely close his locker lid. It’s overflowing with Q-tip boxes, property receipts, five-year-old magazines, and poorly packed mementos; he breaks out in a sweat every time he’s forced to toss something in the trash, as if he’s losing a part of himself. Very aware of the psychological deficiency, we joke about it all the time; however, when you own so little, the little things mean so much.
Being a student of Zen has taught me not to attach my self-worth to people, places, or things, but this hard-earned lesson did not come without some hesitation. After all, I was raised in a society that teaches greed is good and that wealth begets power. But owning nice things does not make us better than someone who is without, and losing those nice things does not make us less than. Yet inside prison, a place where self-esteem and individuality is difficult to find, our belongings quickly become our salvation.
The army-gray footlockers hold our only assets while incarcerated—the Department of Corrections passes out hygiene, socks, and boxers, but prisoners have to buy or hustle up whatever else we need or want. Families can send money to purchase extras like playing cards, reading glasses, vitamins, or sneakers, and we store these accoutrements in our tiny boxes, stowing them away like the treasure of Monte Cristo. Some of the sheepish inmates have empty lockers, unable to fend off the wolves and keep their things. The drug dealers rent five or ten lockers, filling their illegal safety deposit boxes with goods that make them feel rich again.
Everyone behind the wire can tell you what’s inside their footlocker and what’s most important to them. For me, it’s my photo album. I look at my photographs frequently—a reminder that I have a life outside of prison, and family members who love me. My sons. My parents. My siblings and friends. These pictures are secured inside of my personal Fort Knox, protected by a combination lock and safe from the perils of my external environment. No matter how tough things get around me, I can pull out the album and look at their faces, knowing that I am fighting for more than just myself; my change comes from within and my family is my inspiration. I have many things inside my locker, but nothing is as important as that $2.00 photo album.
I organize my footlocker with obsessive compulsion…I only keep things that spark joy. Because I save what’s meaningful, it’s especially hard to accept when items get confiscated during a shakedown—correctional officers love to take random “contraband” from lockers, even if it isn’t a security issue or a direct violation of the rules. Sometimes they just discard my belongings for no reason at all, and I’ve had things taken so often that I’ve gotten used to it. The illusionary importance of materialism has receded in my small world; I’ve learned to have a Zen-like understanding towards material things after losing so much in life. Eventually, with the perseverance and equanimity of Bodhidharma, I started to let go of the past and what was missing, and realized that my attachment to possessions was causing me lasting melancholy for no reason. I now know that identifying with objects as a piece of my whole is dangerous—when something disappears (which is inevitable…after all, nothing is permanent) my happiness is tied to it like it’s a sinking anchor.
I lost more than just stuff when I came to prison: nutrition, dignity, privacy, safety, confidence, purpose. These intangibles make up a large part of what makes people content—the bottom to top of Maslow’s pyramid. But I also lost my active addiction to pain pills when I made
a conscious choice to stay sober, even though I can get whatever drugs I want behind bars. I lost my selfishness when I put my family first. I lost my regrets when I came to understand that I can’t change what I’ve already done and realized I have the power to control how I will move forward. I lost my anger through years of meditation and therapy. I made the choice to rebuild myself from the inside, and only saved what behaviors sparked joy for others: kindness, compassion, humor, love.
When I came to prison in 2014, I was sure that all my previous possessions were wiped away like a clean slate, with no remnants left to ever see again. But during a recent phone conversation with my father, he gave me some unexpected news: “I found a painting of yours when I was cleaning out the garage.”
There’s something to be said about the lessons you learn when you lose everything in life. I understand that identity is just a fictional story we tell ourselves to survive. That our sense of self will never be dependent on material things, and that by doing so, only suffering will come. I won’t ever tie my happiness to the anchor of my belongings again, and I’ll start over with a new appreciation for the things I do have that matter. But I am pretty excited to see Nude once again.