We were in the Juan Santamaría International Airport, at the ticket counter, getting the boarding passes that would ferry us from Costa Rica to Guatemala. The sign was one of those typical airport warnings, disclaiming responsibility for theft. I barely glanced at it. The Spanish wording, “Esté pendiente de sus pertenencias,” was followed by a very literal English translation, but instead of “Be aware of your belongings,” my cursory reading registered another message: “Beware of your belongings!”
“Strange message,” I thought. “As if my suitcase could attack me.” A quick re-reading corrected my mistake. I chuckled, but the original message has been buzzing in my brain ever since. Beware of your belongings!
Some critiques of US middle class culture focus on our consumerism, on our tendency to define our worth by what we own. It’s a temptation I resist, sometimes more easily than at other times. My roots in Quaker simplicity draw me to live another way. But it’s not without struggle.
But, beware!? That’s strong language. “Are you trying to tell me something, Lord,” I wondered. I admit I am attached to certain possessions, like the paintings and artifacts that represent our cross-cultural life style. And my library, of course. My precious books. (“Gollum. Gollum.”) All this stuff I mentally give back to God, and Hal and I practice an open-hands policy of lending—even giving away—stuff as we are led. All this helps, but even so, I know I need that warning: Beware of your stuff!
I was put to the test during our time in Guatemala. Hal had given me a gift from Bolivia, an exquisite hand-carved wooden box, like none I’d ever seen before. We both loved it. But at the end of our ten days of classes and meetings in Guatemala, we discovered we had run out of the small gifts I had packed to give to our hosts and friends. The couple who had taken care of us during this time had gone out of their way to welcome us, feed us, and befriend us in so many ways.
To our credit, I will admit that we did not struggle too much in deciding to give our friends the beautiful box. I knew the wife would especially value it. And by this time, the repeated message—beware of your belongings, Nancy—had left me without resistance.
We’re home now, comfortable in our own apartment, sleeping in our own bed (yes!), surrounded by all our familiar beloved stuff. True, we’re bereft of the box. But I smile when I imagine my friends admiring it, maybe remembering the joy we found in each other’s company.
I’ll take that memory above the box any day.