Week 13: Purification

Thoreau often speaks with a dry wit on the many foibles of his generation. On death:

Not long since I was present at the auction of a deacon’s effects … As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to accumulate in his father’s day. Among the rest was a dried tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again.

And then he adds a statement so often quoted I almost passed over it.

When a man dies he kicks the dust.

I never thought about “kicking the dust” meaning the dissemination of useless possessions.

Thoreau recommends we follow other civilizations in the ritual burning of old possessions. The Mucclasse Indians cast all their old provisions in one common heap and consumed it with fire at the celebration of the “feast of first fruits” (which corresponds nicely with Easter) each year. This burning, along with fasting and abstaining from other gratifications of appetites, symbolized a spiritual purification for the new beginning, or new year. The Mexicans also practiced a similar purification at the end of every fifty-two years, in the belief that it was time for the world to come to an end.

Of these rituals, Thoreau says:

I have scarcely heard of a truer sacrament … (an) outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,

As I clear out my possessions and pack them in bags to be given away, I always feel guilty that someone else must deal with it. Someone must sift through the many items and decide what is needed. If I burned my possessions each year, would I be less tempted to take new things in? Would the pile cast into the center be smaller?

When I think on my possessions, I wonder, “Do I possess or am I possessed?” For it is I who must clean, polish, dust and carry them from one place to another … like natives carrying their wooden gods from one dwelling to another. I am the slave, destined to serve the deity. And, believe me, having moved as often as we have, we have felt our slavery. In the relationship with my possessions, I serve more than they do.

What is really needed?

Is it possible to own only the possessions which serve me? Could I become the master?

I think upon the mounds of laundry I do throughout the week. Is it necessary? I believe I’m going to insist everyone does their own laundry from now on. Perhaps the constancy of the chore would help them to face the insanity. Instead of doing laundry, I’m going to fill the burn barrel. As I cleanse our surroundings from excess, I hope a spiritual renewal will be birthed as well.

I’m thinking in terms of death and purification. When I die, I hope the dust I kick is very small and the life I lived is very beautiful. And, after toting unimaginable amounts of things from one abode to another, I want to purify myself of the old and begin anew. Perhaps it will make way for an exciting new life.



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