For all the possessions that are acquired many more are disposed of. I bought a beanbag so that I could have a comfortable spot by the window to pour through old library books. I knew I could empty the beanbag once the year was over, fold up the linen cover and carry it to another alcove, then refill it. In the spring we left many of our things—from the lamp without a light bulb to dented garbage bins—out in the corridor of our apartment building; soon after we heard shuffling, then the clanking of metal parts as the objects were carried away by students assembling their own temporary homes.
But the beans... I did not realize how difficult it would be to get rid of them. They are made from expanded polystyrene, a material that resembles Styrofoam. They are mostly air, 98 percent, and cannot simply be thrown out, because pouring them over the trash sends the small pieces flying, clinging to hands and all surfaces, and evading any attempts to contain them. NPR published an article claiming that the chemicals from discarded beanbag fill are in our shellfish. I reflected on this finding as Matt and I sat indulging in local fare of oysters on our last evening in Cambridge. The things we discard, presumably sent away to accumulate elsewhere as we move on to a new city, actually end up travelling in our very bones and capillaries.
At the end of the year we packed up our apartment and drove it to Matt's house in upstate New York. We returned the butcher block for safekeeping, and added our books to the shelves. For many years Matt's mom has been taking pieces of old fabric and making them into quilts. In her bedroom there is one such quilt made by her great great grandmother; it oversees her work as she stitches. When Matt and I bring our own belongings into this house, we entwine our stories with those of countless generations.
But what of the things we never bring back? What of the polystyrene, and the lamps with no light bulbs? Some will carry on lives elsewhere, others will stay with us even though they were never meant to be kept, making their way back through clams and oysters. As we pack and unpack, procure and discard, we pass through the lives of those who accumulate things in place. Maybe one day Matt and I will stop migrating and disposing. Instead we will take pieces of the things we no longer need and stitch them together. We will add these to his mother's quilts, and those of her great great grandmother. And we will wonder about the durability of our traces.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.