Essays > Maybe My Potlatch Went Too Far

Maybe my potlatch went too far when I threw away my wedding dress.

On the other hand, who wants to see a white ghost every time you open the closet door, reminding you of failure?

I’ve been on a campaign to travel lighter in the world. Last winter, fighting off a messy malaise, I shucked off pounds of fat. As spring hit, all the other heaviness in my life – the stuff I didn’t like, the stuff I never use, the broken stuff I held onto, thinking I’d fix it, the stuff that didn’t fit, the stuff that reminded me of bad times – it all began to piss me off.
We’re not the only victims to the notion. In the Kingdom of Tonga where I spent two years they think a lot of flesh is beautiful; respect and honor manifests with immense planks of food at feasts – more lobster, more whole pigs, more giant yams, more bowls of pudding than three Tongas could consume. Maybe there’s something in all of us that says, more, more, more – just in case. Just in case there’s that plague, that famine, that run of bad bad luck.

But then it’s too much.

So, my dream of potlatch. According to the Free Online Dictionary, it is “A ceremonial feast among certain Native American peoples of the northwest Pacific coast, as in celebration of a marriage or accession, at which the host distributes gifts according to each guest's rank or status. Between rival groups the potlatch could involve extravagant or competitive giving and destruction by the host of valued items as a display of superior wealth.”
Competitive destruction of valued items? Incinerating one’s wealth (without bailout, stock market or Bernie Madoff) has always seemed thrillingly un-American. And crazy : “I’d-like-to-flirt-with-being-crazy-like-that-too” crazy.

I think I get it. Sometimes stuff just brings you down. Like you’ve been rooked into it, dragging all this wearisome avoirdupois into your life. As a friend says, “that ain’t right.” It’s like the way they used to call tuberculosis “consumption” – it’s a disease you get and get and get and suddenly, one day, you can’t find the AA batteries in the junk drawer (I just typed “drunk drawer” – yikes!), can’t find that one good pair of jeans in the raggedy heap, can’t find yourself in the haystack of tired history.

I’d been thinking it was wealth – proof I mattered on this orb – but there’s imprisonment in it too.

In my heated fury for awhile I couldn’t stand an overstuffed drawer; a blouse I hadn’t worn; a pile of letters from people only my mother knew. I threw away old dishes (black and white), old jackets, pants that didn’t fit, bowls I disliked, candles that made me sneeze, silverware with loose joints, sweaters sloppy with pill, mugs from places I went when I wasn’t happy.

I turned to my laptop, where my inbox had bloated to 6,000 (I’m not kidding) messages. It took me three solid nights of Wheel of Fortune and Law and Order reruns to do it, but furiously deleting, I slashed it down to a trim 100.

Out of a probably misplaced bow to urban propriety, I confess I skipped the bonfire. Instead I piled my backward pillage into rows of black plastic bags and carted them to the street.
I felt guilty about my mother’s high school diploma and sheafs of her curlicue scrawling. I hoped the trash truck got there before I could change my mind. But I was tired of carrying even her disappointed life around with my own. When the truck with that bag crushed inside it finally rumbled away down Maxine, I felt my day expand like an April tulip.

So my potlatch turned into something bigger than I thought: not just getting rid of stuff I no longer wear, or eat from, or look at. It turned into clearing a path through daily life with room for fresh starts. It was about claiming myself, unburdening the heart of its detritus.
And the wedding dress – ah, that wedding dress. It was one of the last things to go. What pride I had on buying it – at Hudson’s, back then – how sweet it felt to slip its sexy silk over my head and get somebody else to zip it up the back. I thought that dress, that marriage, would make me whole. I didn’t know it would take years of bone-crunching life lessons and – let’s face it – another man, another whole sea change, to make that happen.

I’d looked at that dress, dangling from an old padded hanger, a hundred – a thousand -- times since the only time I wore it. That dress went with me, always hanging, always hanging on, waiting for something. It never said “time to let go, time to move on.” It always said, “you hopeless dope. Look what you screwed up.”

When I let it go, I finally used up that voice. Enough already. It’s over.

I didn’t really throw the dress away. I took it to Goodwill. I hope whoever gets it next will wear it lightly and have a happy day. Driving back down Court I still twinged a little in my heart. Moving on from a potlatch can be a little shocking.

But at home, the place feels more like me. The post-potlatch me, the almost-60 woman ready for what comes next.