There’s a television show where they abandon survivalists in separate locations deep in the wilderness. Each contestant gets ten different pieces of survival gear, as well as cameras to record their deaths due to mishap or starvation. Watching it makes me feel like a Roman emperor presiding over a gladiator fight. I pretend to be interested in the sport, but honestly, I’m just waiting for some guy to reach into a shrub for a berry, and scream as a wolf chews his arm off. That’s why I protest when a trained survivalist taps out due to physical anguish. “What about my needs?” I yell. “There’s nothing else on!” The program I’m referring to is called Alone and ironically, it’s of the few shows that I try to watch with someone else. Specifically, my daughter, Lola.
Years ago, it was easy to get her to sit with me. I’d just yell from the other room, and Lola would come running. She’d lie next to me with her head on my chest, and I’d steal kisses from her cheeks as she rubbed them off with her hand. I’d pretend to be indignant.
“What, you don’t think I can make more?” and I’d kiss her cheeks furiously as she giggled and screamed. But now that she’s a high school senior, the days of her resting in my arms seem to be over. There’s just so many other things she’d rather do.
“I can’t Papa. I have homework.”
“Homework is for losers,” I yell back.
Sometimes it’s her classmates that she’s too busy with. “They don’t even like you! I have to pay them to be your friends!”
“Oh my God,” she laughs. “You can’t say that!”
On the rare occasions when she joins me, I feel the pressure to make watching the show as entertaining possible. So, for example, if a contestant breaks down in tears because a fish made off with his last hook condemning him to certain starvation, I’ll equate that to the dire situation I’m in. “This horrible throw pillow,” I say while trying to get it comfortable behind my head. “It’s just too damn fluffy!”
I’ll make myself look like a fool to get her to laugh. “That idiot is crazy if he thinks he’s going to catch a hare with a Paiute deadfall trap.” I say it with such conviction, even though it’s a word I only learned earlier in the episode.
“You have no idea what you’re talking bout, Papa.”
I don’t care. I’m willing to say whatever it takes to keep her at my side.
In its many seasons, a woman has never won Alone, but if you ask me, the women are more impressive than their male counterparts. First, they seem to have a greater knowledge of the local flora. Flora isn’t even a word I would ever use, but I heard a woman on the show say it once, and it made me want to sound smart, too. Walking through an open field, a male contestant might notice a pile of bear shit, pick it up in his hands, and remark, “Hmm, looks like a grizzly was here not five minutes ago.” But women somehow have the ability to see the mountain of shit, yet resist the temptation to squeeze it in their fingertips. Instead, they’ll grab at the various medicinal plants within arms reach, as if they were pushing a cart through the produce section of Trader Joe’s.
“See this root,” says one female contestant as she holds it before her camera, “I can grind it with some moss to make a poultice to treat this infection.” She then holds up her other hand, where a barbed fishhook has been stuck in her palm for two days.
“She’s got a hook in her hand!” I yell. It takes every survival instinct I have to keep from throwing up.
“Quick, bring me a trash can, I don’t want to puke poultice onto my snuggle blanket!” I try to use the word poultice in as many ways as possible, grateful once again that a woman has broadened my vocabulary. The women just seem mentally tougher than the men. Certainly tougher than I’ve ever been. They tend to complain a lot less in the face of desperation. Personally, I don’t get it. If you’re alone in the woods, what else are you going to do besides complain? And who are you annoying anyway?
I also have misgivings about the way the men shelter themselves. Some of them live like animals, sleeping inside a pile of dead leaves with all sorts of creatures that might bite you. I’ve seen women, on the other hand, build log cabins, complete with driftwood furniture and tapestries made from animal skins. One woman constructed an Indian sweat lodge. Can you imagine slowly starving to death, yet mustering enough energy to maintain that level of civility? To Lola, I’m always quick to point out how strong and impressive the women are because I think they make good role models. Now that she’s about to head into the world, I’ve grown scared that I won’t be around to protect her. These women can show her what strength looks like. I almost never mention how awful they must stink, even as I worry their stench might seep through the cable lines and into our living room. Sometimes I catch myself pulling my shirt over my nose just as a precaution.
As the contestants toil to stay alive, I make a point of rubbing Lola’s feet. She thinks I’m doing it for her, but truthfully, I do it because it reminds me of when she was a baby — when she couldn’t get up and walk away.
“Have you been feeding this little piggy roast beef?” I ask. “Look how fat he is, and look how skinny the others are. You should teach him to share.” Lola self-consciously jerks her foot out of my hand, but like a trout that almost gets away, I quickly snag it and pull it tight. I can be a survivalist, too.
“Now, about this fat, selfish bastard you call a big toe…” Lola giggles and I melt.
We binge watch the show, and with each passing episode, the contestants grow progressively slower and weaker as their bodies consume themselves to stay alive.
“Damn, look how much weight he’s lost. Other than the vacant gaze in his eyes, he looks great!”
“Me too. Pass me that box of cookies.”
It’s clear that his brain is struggling to form coherent thoughts. This is when the show really gets good, because contestants start making life threatening mistakes. “Why is he holding his knife like that,” I yell at the TV. “He’s going to put it through his leg!”
“You just said that ten minutes ago, Papa.”
“Did I? I must be getting woozy. It’s been so long since I’ve had an ice cream bar.” I gesture vaguely towards the kitchen, still holding a chocolatey wrapper.
When the episode ends, I beg Lola to stay and watch another. But she has to study for her college entrance exams. In a few months, she’ll be out of the house and surviving on her own. How did this day sneak up on me? I should’ve surrounded our home with some old tin cans tied to fishing wire. I’ve seen it work against wolverines.
With no one in the living room to mock me, I turn the channel to a show called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. She’s a Japanese organizing consultant who helps people remove clutter from their lives. Even though she barely speaks English, she has a delightful energy that can be understood in any language. I haven’t verified this, but judging by the way she flits about, I estimate that Marie is no bigger than my thumbnail. You could probably keep three Marie Kondos in your breast pocket, and still have room for a can of beer.
Most of the homes she cleans are jam packed with excessive furniture and needless items. Despite this, Marie approaches each house with such reverence. If it were me, I’d yell from the cab of a crane, “We’re getting rid of all your worthless crap!” then let loose with a wrecking ball. But not Marie Kondo. Before getting to work, she spends a few moments in each home, just sitting on the floor, silently holding space. Before I became a parent, this part would have made my eyes roll. But I’m less cynical now, so instead my eyes tear up. It’s easy to see it as a house full of clutter and junk, but Marie recognizes these things for what they are. Memories. Instinctively, I reach over to touch my daughter’s foot, but she left long ago.
“Does this oven mitt spark joy?” Marie asks the homeowner who has a pantry filled with dozens of oven mitts. Invariably, that question will give the person pause. She’ll describe the circumstances by which she obtained this particular oven mitt. Maybe she inherited it from Aunt Rebecca after she passed away.
“It was her dying wish that I have this oven mitt.”
“But does it spark joy?” she asks again.
The answer is “no” and Marie thanks the oven mitt, then gently places it in the donation pile, and I want to cry again. Imagine thanking an oven mitt for the contribution it made to your life. I’ve never once thought to do that. What kind of monster am I?
When Marie Kondo has finished her magic, the homeowners have a new attitude on life, enjoying empty spaces in their homes for the first time in years. They’ll probably fill it back up in a matter of weeks, but for now, there’s space for clarity. They thank Marie who says a few words in Japanese, then flies back to her home inside of an acorn. The whole process is so beautiful, so respectful. As the credits role, I get lost in peaceful self-reflection, then finally bark at Cynthia, “We’re throwing out all our shit!”
For the next several days, I’m on a mission to toss anything that doesn’t spark joy. Goodbye fourth favorite sweater I barely ever wore. Goodbye box of outdated electrical equipment that never had a chance to come in handy. So long almost new pair of jeans that no longer fits me, I’m sorry we didn’t meet sooner. The more I let go of things, the freer I feel. Or so I tell myself. I check the kitchen to see if we have our own collection of oven mitts.
“Does this spark joy?” I ask Cynthia, while dangling our red oven mitt.
“Actually, it sparks fear,” she replies. “Look at the hole in the fingers.” She’s right. That is pretty terrifying. A properly functioning oven mitt doesn’t seem like something one should skimp on. I decide we can’t throw it out until we buy another, and I suspect that day will never come.
I then move to the shelves in the living room, tossing out books I haven’t touched in years, but somehow thought defined who I was. There’s an anthology of poems I read when I was in college, and even then, it was only to pass an exam. But if people don’t see it on my bookshelf, how will they know I’m smart? I toss it into a box, deciding that when it comes to my intelligence, I’ll just keep people guessing.
“You no longer spark joy!” I yell, and once again I’m a Roman emperor condemning prisoners to death. I toss another book into a milk crate then gently add, “But thank you!”
As the day wears on, my mission becomes feverish. “Get rid of it all!” I shout. “I don’t need this… I don’t need this… and why did I ever think I needed this!” Something has taken hold of me. I don’t know what it is, but it’s too strong to shake.
In less than a week, I’ve reduced my possessions by almost half. Considering how joyless I can sometimes be, it’s hard to believe I still have this many things that spark joy. And yet, this nagging feeling that I still possess too much won’t go away. I guess part of me was hoping to narrow my belongings down to ten survival items. “Maybe I’m being too hard on myself,” I think. “It’s good to have a few extra bars of soap under the sink.” The house feels emptier, and that’s what I need right now. I’m middle-aged, and the emptiness makes our home feel full of possibility, as opposed to being full of choices already made.
Lola comes out from her bedroom having just completed another college application, and stares at the massive pile of belongings waiting to be donated.
“What’s gotten into you?” she asks. In a moment, I’ll realize what it is.
“Do you want to watch Alone with me? I’ll rub your little tootsies.”
“Sorry,” she says, bouncing out to meet her friends. The sound of the door shutting echoes through our home, and in her place she leaves more emptiness. I stare at the spot she was in, not two seconds ago. I can still see her beautiful green eyes, the ones that took my heart the day she was born.
“It’s going to be okay,” I tell myself. “Now there’s more room for possibility.”
“But how will I survive without her?” I cry. “When all she sparked was joy.”