Sunday, August 31, 2008

"It's is lumber, man -- all lumber!"

I like words. I actually keep a list of words that really strike me in some way, and that list is quite short. It takes a lot for a word to get on that list. There has to be meaning to the word that goes well beyond ordinary usage, meaning that leeds me to ponder about life in some way. Today's post is about one such word -- Lumber.

At first blush this word must seem pretty ordinary. Lumber is, after all, so common a thing. Who doesn't know something of 2 X 4's and plywood sheets. Who hasn't made trips to the lumber yard for that bit of wood to finish a project.

But there is a rather archaic definition of the word lumber that caught my attention some time ago, and the older I get the more meaningful that definition becomes. I first came across this definition in a Dickens novel where some character is in a lumber room. I hadn't heard of that before, but by the context it seemed a sort of storage room or attic for cast of household junk. I looked up the word lumber and sure enough, that is an old definition -- cast off household junk.

Some time later I was reading a delightfully funny book suggested by an old English professor by Jerome K. Jerome -- Three Men in a Boat. (It is hilarious british humor for one thing, but also a poignant analysis of some of what is important in life. Three friends decide to take a boat up the river Thames for rest and relaxation, and what they do and what happens to them is great stuff!) I had not gotten far into my first reading of the book, I came across a real gem of philosophy and good living that I believe we could all stand to think about.

As the three friends are packing their boat for the trip, one of them speaks up . . .

George said:

'You know we are on the wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can't do without.'

George comes out really quite sensible at times. You'de be surprised. I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care a twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha'pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with -- oh, heaviest lumber of all! -- the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal's iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man -- all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment's freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment's rest for dreamy laziness -- no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o'er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the somber-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchis, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need -- a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water.

I think the above stands pretty well on its own and doesn't need much commentary from me. Let me just say that with my 52 years I have come to realize the George really is quite sensible here, quite sensible indeed. Read it again, and again. Think about it, about its implications, about your own lumber, whether it is things you have piled up or emotions you haven't gotten rid of. Think about it and then take Jerome K. Jerome's advice -- Throw the lumber over, man!


markolopia (mahrk-uh-LOHP-i-uh) said...

I always thought that book was nothing but an extended British joke! Very true insight though. I ought to read it!

Andra said...

Brilliant, man. Brilliant.

Cam said...

True words of wisdom.