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  • Writer's pictureToby

Ownership bankruptcy


The above is an excerpt from Barry Lopez’s Horizon. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book which felt as if it were speaking from within me, rather than being watched and read.


Mr. Lopez, may his memory be a blessing, has put words to my deep, confusing feelings about ownership. Here he happened upon a Pueblo site, previously untouched by colonized hands. His impulse to take a shard of pottery was overcome, to his relief as well as to the fellow scientist’s relief.


That impulse is in me. I see a beautiful place, experience a wonderful thing, and I have a driving desire to take something. I must own a physical piece of it or it is not mine. This has also been true of thoughts and feelings. I grew in a culture which believed everything was better said. Little to nothing of another’s experience was left to the imagination. “I’m just saying what I feel/think!” was a common utterance.


Possession and ownership seemed to have been intertwined with engagement and experiencing somewhere along our cultural evolution. It feels like something isn’t real unless we take possession and own it. I’ve found it hard to challenge this. But I’ve had a little success.


In recent years I’ve implemented the idea that some feelings or thoughts are just for me. It’s my job to feel and think them, but that is it. Mean, hurtful thoughts, but also prideful, conciliatory, and peaceful thoughts need not be uttered to another. It seems I experience them more fully and I can move on afterwards. I’ll be damned if that ain’t mindfulness. And I seem to hurt others, colonizing their experience, a lot less.


What would happen if we interacted more with the physical world this way? Indigenous people didn’t really have ownership. They traveled, even when they didn’t need to, and experienced this transitory life in a transitory way, without attaching too deeply (except for maybe the land itself from which they drew life and spirituality). Things were exactly that to them: things. Works of art and dining room sets did not define them.


Fires have been popping up around us lately. My wife has taken to keeping a running list of things to leave the house with in an emergency. I’ve been impressed how she’s narrowed it to the kids’ favorite stuffies, pictures, and our documents. She says the rest, including the house, are just things. She’s helping me own less, too. If things we own define us, then do we own them? Or do they own us? Seems like ownership goes bankrupt there.

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