The Acorn: How Things Become Memory
Years ago I lived in Springfield, Missouri – a town that, back then, seemed like the dead end of a forgotten street in the middle of nowhere. As a missionary kid I had grown up in places like the Ivory Coast and Paris, moving around and always finding new friends and experiences. Since my parents had divorced when my twin brother and I were around 12 years old, our split family had settled in the buckle of the bible belt, ready to whither away into senility and sterility.
I began to go stir crazy after a few years. I remember arriving in Springfield, having just lived in Paris, and being ridiculed for speaking French. My classmates looked at us as though we were from another planet – and that planet was populated by freaks. It was the first time I was told that I should consider the word “weird” to be a compliment. Eventually, I heard that term so much that I was able to adopt it as a badge of honor – a gift that separated me from the banality of small town Midwestern isolationism.
This being a time before the internet and cell phones, there were plenty of opportunities to explore the outdoors. My twin and I would follow creeks for what seemed like miles, finding turtles and snakes and crawdads to capture and play with. We would walk through fields and discover thickets that could be turned into hidden hideaways, away from the prying eyes of adults and authority figures.
It was on one of these trips that I picked up an acorn. It was, as acorns go, pretty mediocre – though acorns tend to be quite beautiful with their smooth and graceful underbelly and textured beret like a Frenchman’s head nestled between the pudgy baguettes of my fingers. I put the acorn in my pocket and continued on with my day, catching and releasing bugs, throwing rocks at tree trunks, and listening to the constant drone of insects in the humid Missouri air.
That’s how it was for a long time…
When I was sixteen I moved to New Mexico with my father and his wife, leaving my twin brother and my mother back in Springfield. It wasn’t that New Mexico offered any kind of deep meaning for me, it was just a step out in the right direction – a window of opportunity to escape the trappings of Midwestern childhood that eventually leads to Midwestern adulthood and then bitter death. I had experienced the Missouri of Mark Twain and now I needed the deserts of Edward Abbey.
I packed my things in one place and unpacked them in another. In one of the last boxes that I opened in my new home I found it. The acorn. I knew it had been there, but on a small, subconscious, peripheral level. I chuckled at the thought of having brought a Missouri acorn to New Mexico and gently put it back in the box.
This ritual would repeat itself over and over again in the next number of years.
I eventually moved back to Missouri after some troubles with the law, both at home and in the streets, and again discovered my acorn. It was nestled by some books that I had read, reminding me of my past – where I had come from, what I had gone through, what lay ahead. I gently placed it back in the box and went about my life.
When I was eighteen I moved to Seattle with my older brother – again as a ripcord to yank me away from the banality of life in Springfield – a town that had somehow managed to pull me back time and again through the sticky fingers of family, youth, and obligation.
In the next twelve years of living in Seattle I moved a total of thirteen times. Each time, the acorn presented itself, a specter of my former life and a reminder of who I had been. It began to take on new significance. It was a physical part of the old environment, a tangible token of the place where my twin brother, my mother, my grandmother, and a whole host of family still lived. I would look at it for a couple of minutes at every packing and unpacking and reminisce.
It became an artifact. It was no longer just an acorn. It was a memory. A small shape that, when held, revealed and released captured time from the moment I found it through a series of moves, always gathering more memories like dust in an attic.
It wasn’t until I was leaving Seattle that I finally snapped out of the revelry of the acorn. It had acquired power. Power enough to hold me to it for over a decade and through multiple states. From box to box it jumped and slid, always able to hook itself into my brain through barbs of memories when it was revealed – always alone and at the bottom of some box.
I remember the day I looked at it and saw it for what it was: an acorn. I was ready to move again – back to the desert Southwest – and was packing fewer belongings this time. I had already begun my transition to transience, only allowing myself to drag along things that truly mattered. When I finally saw that acorn again, it was not the acorn itself that did not matter. It was the memories embedded in its skin. The yearly reminders of what and whom I had been.
After tossing the acorn into the trash I realized how much I had been invested in the idea of the acorn. As time went on I began to realize that the memories it had held were still with me. They had not been trapped in the acorn time capsule all along. I did not need the physical object to recall what had come before.
Ever since I tossed the acorn into the trash, I have often thought of it. It has become a warning for me as I move forward in my life. Now I look around and see acorns everywhere. They are my watch, my jacket, my car, my camera, my paintings… everything. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get rid of everything. There are things that hold sentimental value that I think are truly beautiful and enrich my life. But they are not attached to me in the way they might have been.
Acorns are what make the world go around. They are sold to us everyday and we see them everywhere. People drive around in their acorns, adorning them with bells and whistles so that others might admire the beauty of their particular acorn. Some wear their acorns. They are made of supple and fine materials, bought with cards that represent more acorns. There are neighborhoods of acorns, painted and pruned to establish an idea of who the person or people are that are inside that particular acorn.
Each acorn gets dragged along, taking on more meaning and becoming more indispensable as time goes on. The more acorns there are, the harder it gets to throw them out. They become anchors that weigh you down – keeping you in towns and circumstances that have long outlived their usefulness in your life. It is not the acorns that are at fault. It is not the memories or the meanings that we imbue in the acorns themselves. It is the person that has attached themselves to the acorn, believing that their attachment is a conduit for identity.
Now I have a family. A son. A wife. I have a house filled with accumulated acorns. Memories trapped in objects that sit lifeless in their closets, but that draw smiles of recognition when they happen to be seen. Acorns. We are about to move to another country half a world away. Now, instead of packing my acorns for future smiles, I look forward to cleansing myself of them. Ridding myself of the accumulated acorns and the memories that get trapped inside of them.
Acorns, by themselves, are not traps. It is their ability to act as vessels for memories and the past that make them potentially problematic. We owe it to ourselves to diminish the reliance on these so-called acorns in our lives. Someone somewhere once said that wealth is not measured by what one has, but is instead measured by how little one needs. There are things that enhance our lives. But take a look around – how many things have you accumulated that are really just acorns?
In creating Hiker Bible and focusing on travel and experience as a priority in our lives (my wife, my son, and myself), anything that does not allow us to hit the road for long periods of time has become an acorn. My acorns are not your acorns. We all, as individuals, must ascertain what it is that we want most out of life – and then spend some quality time throwing away the acorns that get in the way of those goals.
Acorns trap time and memory, but they also steal time and memory. For every thing that takes up your time and energy, there are other things that are left unattended. In freeing oneself from the acorns, we allow ourselves to be reinvented by the experiences that open up to us.
Springfield, Missouri was not the problem. Las Cruces, New Mexico was not the problem for me – and neither was Seattle. Everywhere we go we create a new reality for ourselves – and that is both beautiful and terrifying. “No matter where you go, there you are” is a wise and true statement. Just as the acorn was not inherently what I had created it to be, neither are the places we live. They are manifestations of our hopes, desires, fears, longings, memories, and anxieties. They are, in their own ways – acorns, too.