I like old things. Sometimes I like to think maybe it’s because I inherited all my grandfather’s old war stuff, but the truth is, I’ve always loved what’s old: an antique store with everything under the sun in it or the smell of old paper bound to a book of poetry or walking around in a cavernous, quiet museum surrounded mostly by the sounds of footsteps and slow breathing that echo off the emptiness.
I’ve made an effort lately to frequent my grandfather’s farm and rekindle that love of what’s old. While I’m there, I like to think I take “Pop” on a little in the farmer’s stride I inherit when I saunter around his place in Chester County, Tennessee – one hundred fifty-seven acres of pristine field and forest sandwiching Turkey Creek. The farm is one of the most sacred places on earth to me. I write about it frequently. I even wrote a novel set there. It’s been in the family for over a hundred years, and no matter how many hours I walk around exploring, I almost always find something new in the midst of all the old. I think that’s what I love the most about “old things”: they give us a chance to confront our lives and recall that those who came before us once faced the struggles we do and overcame them despite the odds – golden years refined by the tests of flames.
There are three barns on the farm that used to house chickens and horses and tractors and old milk crates, and nowadays they’re mostly in ruin filled with remnants of the past – rusted metal thingamajigs and corn husks, really. Beside a logging trail that runs by the first and second barn is a ravine covered in leaves from winters past, and underneath the leaves is an old garbage dump where my grandfather regularly threw out the family trash. This week, I decided to rummage through the old garbage dump kicking around old leather shoes that took my grandfather, I imagine, many miles by foot, Coke cans from what had to be days when Coke had just started using aluminum, and an old glass ketchup bottle that was begging to be made into a candle holder. Digging through all the junk, now treasure, I had flashbacks to my time in Israel rummaging through some four thousand-year old “trash” on an archaeological excavation back in 2008. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my grandfather’s trash told some great story of American culture and history. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my own trash, my own junk, were I to toss it out, might one day do the same.
The people of our past have given us their trash and their treasure. We’ve been handed the very difficult task of distinguishing between what’s worth cataloging, worth cherishing, and what belongs back in the heap of nonsensical junk we may as well forget, forgive, or toss aside. When and if we honestly try to be people of faith or hold dear a sense of spiritual self, I think a lot of what we’re really doing is the hard work of excavating our pasts and determining what of that story must be told. In that journey, a lot of the trash that we often want to throw away is actually treasure we’ve got to learn how to carry proudly into the present. That’s no small task. It’s one that I suspect takes a lifetime to get right, and then – maybe – when we’re dead and gone, somebody else comes along, picks up our story and starts to ask the same questions of themselves we once faced.
Or, at least, that’s what I really like about old things – that they connect us to a thousand lives before and a thousand lives to come.