Garage Sale Existentialism

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With the exception of baseball, there is perhaps nothing more Americana then the Garage Sale. Only along the tree-lined streets of suburban America will you find garage doors open early on a Saturday morning unveiling a trove of stuff (Thank you, George Carlin!) deemed both worthless and valuable at the same moment. As the urban treasure hunters stop to peruse the wares, a very poor rendition of bedouin negotiating takes place between two suburbanite stalkers, one striving to sell his or her “valuable” wares and the other seeking to gain a prize at the lowest price possible. In this entrepreneurial dance of want and need, of old but new, the tenets of existentialism are vividly played out.

I recently had the “pleasure” of holding a garage sale. You must understand that I detest garage sales. From my perspective, they are such a waste of time and energy. My attitude towards ridding oneself of unwanted stuff is to give it to a non-profit agency who can utilize my discarded items to assist people in need. Such a process takes less time, and creates less irritation for me. However, on this occasion in an effort to support marital bliss, and fulfill a commitment I made last fall while attending a class on managing finances, I proceeded with the garage sale.

The purpose of this particular garage sale was to rid our household of duplicate items we had garnered due to my recent marriage and the merging of two households. Most of what was to be sold were various kitchen items, appliances, and furniture from my bachelor existence (and we all know that bachelor furnishings are much less practical and/or desirable then bachelorette furnishings). A week before the garage sale was to be held, I began sorting through the boxes of stuff I had accumulated over my ten years of single life. I had assumed that allowing seven days for sorting was more than adequate time to accomplish this task. What I had not counted on was the length of time some of these boxes had been sealed and stored.

As the process of sorting unfolded I experienced angst, that existential angst that accompanies the question of existence. Why am I here? What is my purpose for existence? I was caught off guard by this growing angst that seemed to seep from each new box opened and increasingly enveloped me with memories, thoughts, and emotions long ago stored away. Some of the boxes were books and papers I had packed away when I resigned from my last church work position almost 11 years ago. Amidst the books, files, and papers were photos of events and groups of which I had been a part or led. Faces I had long forgotten now returned in a ghostly matter of fact manner. With the pictures came reminders of the many different ways I have tried to define myself over the years, as well as how each of those self-definitions left me feeling incomplete and seeking more. Some memories wretched with pain and agony, some filled me with regret and sorrow, still others filled me with shame and embarrassment the way red mercury fills a thermometer on a hot day. At times, the range of emotions and the paradox of perspectives left me frozen on my basement floor.

In those moments when I was able to remove myself from the jumble of memories and feelings and be “objective,” I would place some items in a sell pile, some in a keep pile, and some in a throw away pile. It would be the throw away pile that would jolt me again, but this time the lightning bolt of emotion and memories had to do with allowing past aspects of my life and legacy to die. While the items I was tossing away for good had no financial or practical value for anyone (including myself), they nonetheless represented throwing away parts of myself. The process was like living a ‘B’ movie where the main character is losing limbs and body parts as he or she travels across some barren piece of land or planet. The hopeless sense that comes when one recognizes he or she cannot return to that place or time, or go back and correct a myriad of wrongs nestled against my heart. The sense of loss and grief frequently brought tears to my eyes, and the sorrow of what had been burned intensely in my chest.

It had never occurred to me that working my way through boxes of papers, kitchen utensils, books, plates, and bed linens would move me to think about where I belong today. This process initiated further thoughts about my connections, with whom I am connected and with whom I have become disconnected. I started re-evaluating where I experience being a part of something meaningful and significant, and where I felt distanced and apart from people, groups, and ideas that I once had prized. I thought of the losses over the last year—finishing school, completing my dissertation, my mentor moving to a new geographic location, and transitioning from student to professional.

So, as the sun rose on that first Saturday morning in June, I opened my garage door and exhibited my wares to be picked over, looked at, put back, and bargained for. As the day unfolded, I experienced yet another wave of existential angst brought on by people’s rejection of what I had once called valuable and consequential. Not only was I letting go of parts of me, creating new boundaries in defining myself, but now strangers were telling me that these once significant and profound items of my past were worthless. I wondered how people could be so callous, so insensitive to my unfolding of myself. But then I remembered . . .

. . . I detest garage sales!

— Steve Fehl

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