Curating Life

One Father’s Day my daughter Jennifer took me to the International Towing and Recovery Museum, located here in Chattanooga. It is no accident that this underappreciated museum resides locally – Chattanooga is where the towing industry got its start, and Miller Industries still builds tow trucks nearby. It was a fascinating and fun trip, because the museum has not only collected an astounding variety of towing related artifacts, but it has arranged and displayed them in an interesting way. And they have tons more items – trucks, memorabilia, signs, gizmos – warehoused. But what you see is what they have ‘curated’ – gathering together the things that are significant to the history of the industry.

We tend to want to gather things up during our lives. Mementos, books, quilts, Granny’s dishes. But that can range from simple wistful remembrance all the way to hoarding. It is easy to pile up ‘stuff’ that serves no real purpose and has no real effect on our lives. Gathering, collecting, and curating are not one and the same.

A few years back I started buying music on CD in large quantities. Part of it was wanting to revisit the music of my youth, part of it was to discover unexplored genres like jazz and classical. And part of it was the satisfaction of gathering up rows and rows of jewel cases on a shelf. I later turned my attention to records, with my original intention to get high-quality albums on vinyl. It did not take long, however, before I was gathering up LPs by the dozens. Every trip to a different city meant visiting local record stores and usually coming home with a nice pile of records that I considered essential. Next thing I knew, I had 1,200+ CDs and 2,400+ LPs, and no place to effectively store them. And no chance to actually listen to many of them. Add in high definition digital streaming, and it was obvious I had access to more music than I could ever appreciate in what remains of my life.

So, I set about curating my collection, using this definition:

 Curate: “to select, organize and look after the objects or works of art in a museum or an art gallery, etc.”

Key word for me is ‘select’ – what albums did I need to own physically? And the answer I came up with is I needed the best version of music I enjoy on whichever format it was available on. Some albums are best found on recent LP remasters, some are better on SACD (super audio compact disc), some are better on CD, some are better as high-def streams. And some have intrinsic value in a collection, old favorites, box sets, or records my kids have given me as gifts. My collection has steadily come down to about 840 records, the 1200 CDs are ripped to a hard drive, SACDs have grown to about 60. While I am not quite done (curation is an ongoing process) I have already enjoyed the benefits.

Curating relieves you of the burden of hoarding stuff, and focuses your attention on what matters. I can now reliably pull a record from my bins and it will be something I want to enjoy, and it will have superior sound, too. If while playing I realize it is not particularly good or the recording is sub-par, it goes in the trade/sell bins. In other words, curating leaves behind that which matters, things that have personal value, and stuff that is important.

Yesterday I realized that my very life needed curating. I noted that I was 62 years old and only had so many years left to enjoy this world. It is too easy to get caught up in stacks of books I should read, or that people have recommended, music that is not enjoyable, vapid shows on TV. I need to carefully select and organize and enjoy what goes in my head. It has become imperative that I look after my collection of thoughts, ideas, inputs into my brain. People, places, things that do not add value (enrich, enjoy, build up, expand my being) have to be put aside. There just isn’t time to do it all anymore and watching a 48-episode series, just because someone said I should, is a poor use of that time.

Now, this is not as ruthless or clinical as it may sound. I can waste time with the best of them. Realistically, it would take 9.6 years, at just one album per day, to listen to all the physical media I own. That’s ignoring new music entirely (a big mistake). I can spend a week reading a book that I do not enjoy that much, just turning the pages to get to the end. But sometimes I need to watch/listen/read just because. I am human, after all.

Going forward, though, I am bailing on shows I don’t like, books that aren’t enjoyable or beneficial, music that is tired or overblown. I am curating what I see, curating what I hear, curating what I read. And that includes how I use my time, interactions I have with people, my presence on social media.

Whenever I used to visit my mom, I might mention something she had, and she would offer it to me. She did the same with my kids. I realized what she was doing – she was curating her life as she neared its conclusion. She was making sure that the things she had accumulated would end up as treasures in someone else’s life collection. I have started the same with my kids. The time to purge my life collection of things is while I’m still alive to see the joy it brings. I am curating my possessions down to the things that I still need to enjoy, and avoiding having a garage full of stuff after I’m gone.

Curating life, both physically and mentally.

Curating life is managing not only your physical things but also managing what your life consists of. If the definition is “to select, manage and look after” what is in my life, then I better get to it. Life is not long, and it becomes more apparent every day how true that is. And life is not contained in the stuff that you have, but in the pleasure and enrichment and enjoyment that it brings.

Jesus told a story about a rich guy who kept getting richer and didn’t know what to do:

“The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!” Luke 12:16-19

Or, as sardonic comedian Steven Wright deadpans:

“You can’t have everything – where would you put it?”

Exactly. Curate your life down to what matters, carefully selecting and organizing it, looking after your time and resources. Get the most enjoyment, the most enrichment, the most pleasure you can out of the days you have left. This life will not last forever, and you do not want to be this guy:

“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’” Luke 12:20

A little harsh? Maybe. But I hope to curate my stuff, and my life, to what matters.

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