Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On the Life of Objects

A piece of yarn drapes, coiled over the stone shaped like an egg on the window sill of the bedroom. We collected rocks as children. Sold them at our store along with braided grass necklaces, friendship bracelets made of colored string, and once a fish caught from the lake. I collect stones from the places I go when I'm away from home. I keep them in cloth pouches, wooden boxes, on the sills of windows, the kitchen counter, the rim of the bath. Smooth stones are best, the eye lingers pleasuring, on the surface. Bumpy rocks, rocks with holes from the sea, from creatures, from magic, scare me. I do not like to swim places where I cannot see the bottom. But, I will. I do not like to look at surfaces that lack congruence of shape. Certain patches of gravely excess, of bumpiness, I find grotesque and terrifying. Once, a rash on my brother's chin, dried blood, elicited this in me. I had to stop looking at him for awhile, which wasn't nice, since he was just a little boy.

I discover postcards sent years ago from a friend. A picture of the manger scene, of Beijing nightlife, of mountains. As children, we pressed autumn leaves between wax paper with my mother. I still find her wildflowers flattened between the pages of heavy books. My mother does not collect things. Her jewelery boxes are messy, always missing earrings, silver chains knotted, unusable. Sometimes I have found small rocks there, she must have absentmindedly slipped them into her pocket. She would have found them months later, not remembering where they'd come from, laying them among the disarray of her accessories.

A tiny vase filled with stone, birch bark, dried heather and ash, a wooden bird bending towards the ground, legs of wire mounted on carved wood, painted brown.

My grandfather's war photos, the newspaper clippings he kept. I touch these objects thinking only that he too touched them. A picture of an old woman with her hands in prayer, on the back in my grandfather's hand, “woman begging for a smoke.” Is it meant to be funny or sad?

What exists in objects that draw us to them? What powers are theirs? My favorite childhood book was about a donkey that turned into a stone. It involved a tiny red wishing pebble, a hungry lion in the woods, a sudden wish of panic: Make me a stone.

History is filled with missing objects. Seeking lost objects sets its plot, the journey, and its end, found object.

Objects are used to solve mysteries, crimes, and to make guilty; objects are used to ward off evil, to protect, and to destroy. Objects promise love as in the union of marriage, rings exchanged, or in the common practice of giving objects as gifts.

My husband collects baseball cards and toy figurines. This, he does compulsively, lovingly, expectant. He likes to order these objects, stack them, touch them, line them up to be seen by him alone. These objects are not for sharing, though on occasion, when children visit, he allows them to play with certain figurines. I used to become angry with him for wasting money on his collections. Though baseball cards could be sold for money, and he stated this in his defense, this is not his intention. The collecting of objects provides a sense of safety. A pleasure in having more, and yet, never enough, his collecting wards off ending. His objects refuse to let the past slink away, to let childhood dim into memory, which would then be known as something fixed, unchanging, and real.

I gave my sister a Celtic Cross for a graduation gift. She lost it in the woods near the sauna. Sometimes we still look for it. My mother lost her wedding diamond while cleaning the toilet, my father lost his wedding band because he never wore it. Last he saw it hanging with a safety pin from the green leaf of a house plant. We do not worry about the lost objects that represent living bonds we feel remain intact, though, should we doubt our marriage, our friendship, our sisterhood, we worry, losing an object of sentiment might be a bad omen.


Jen and I are walking through the flower garden, late October, picking what is left of the crop. I ask her about the life of objects. We bend low over the Black Eyed Susans, she with the clippers, me with can.
“What objects?” She asks.
“Not useful ones, like toothbrush, bed, and slipper.” I say.

We are clipping flowers to bring to a memorial outside a woman's home. Jen calls to me each time she finds a pretty bloom, amazed that anything still survives. I walk down the row, I have never learned the names of flowers except those my mother taught me. We make flowers into objects by clipping. In her book of flowers, my mother writes the date and location of seen flower. Sometimes I flip through her book, looking for the oldest date, but why? Time has its talon's in me.

The October sky is luscious, gorged and wrapped in thick cloud, colored and dreamlike, deep and lonely. The sky is not object. Does the sky object?

Jen says, “Objects are symbolic, they give meaning, so, even the objects that don't seem to have a purpose, have one, if they bring meaning to our life. Meaning is a purpose.”

I say, “It's too complex, because then you have to think about language, animal's don't have objects for meaning.”

“If you had a picture of your grandfather, it would mean something to you, but if someone else saw it, it might mean something to them too, a memory of another era. But, if you have a stone, it only means something to you.” She tells me.

Is this true? I wonder. We walk on. I realize the fall colors are at peak brilliance right now. That I love being on this farm land in the place we call the Intervale, the low land beside the Winooski River. None of the pictures I've taken of beauty, of moments that filled me with longing, of seeing, remain true, became true. The pictures I love, are those of accidental genius, happenstance. The wind and chill of fall pinks our cheeks, and I am thankful for this feeling of cold and the heat of my body.

Is it simply that objects remind us, remember, hold symbolic something other than what they are? Do we use objects like language, to represent what is absent? There are stones all over my bedroom and bath, but neither I nor my husband collected them. They are left by the woman who owns the house we're staying in. The stones are objects, having been removed from nature; they fill me with a sense of calm beauty, a pleasure in the presence of the outer world within. They mean something to me, but not perhaps what they had meant to her.

I have entered many houses filled with the world of nature: rocks, stones, leaves, sticks, dried flowers, antler, bird's nest. I feel instantly at home. I realize this: sentimental objects like ceramic cats, are not what I'm thinking about. Nicknacks are not the topic of interest here. When I sit in a room filled with nicknacks, I am estranged, dislocated, filled with heavy regret. But should someone tack a slice of birch bark, frayed and curling pink, to the wall, I am comforted. I admit, this is because my childhood was filled with Birch Trees. In my memory bubble, Birch shoot up and thrive.

Outside the house where a woman died, a memorial is raised. It consists of objects. Flowers, plastic butterflies, prayer flags, a stuffed animal, a cup of coffee, a tin with a piece of Wriggly's Spearmint gum and a square of dark chocolate, crosses, notes, pictures of the woman in her garden smiling. Jen and I bend down to sit on the wool blanket someone has left for kneeling. We look at the collection of objects. She places our cup of flowers. The objects distract us from thinking or speaking. They remind us of the woman, when she was still alive.

Jen and I stand in the backyard of her house. We should not be here, really. I say, do you think she is still here? Jen is quiet, sensing.
“Yes, she's here, she's going to be here for a little while, I think.”


Objects remind us. Remember and call forth. Each one calling something different to each of us. We live simultaneously in this moment and the last, any moment from before could enter this one. But, the past has safely passed, its re-entry now, something other than consciousness. What then, we can't say, as we will all disagree on what has safely passed and what has not, or on the meaning of an object and where it should live.

Once on an open air train, as a child, I stood beside my mother. She held my small sister in her arms. And in the arms of my sister, a teddy bear. It might have been Tennessee, or some state near West Virginia, we were on a day trip, seeing autumn. The woods deep below us in a ravine, colored of fall, far off, away. The bear slipped from the hands of my sister, tumbled down, and was gone. My sister was not old enough to understand her loss. She clapped her hands together, her hair short blond curls, she had tiny eyes. This began my wishing and imagining game, which would last to adulthood, perhaps into.

How I imagined that bear! Toppled down. Into a forest, dark and misty. Sad, the bear, lost, the bear. I wished, imagined, over and over, silently, never aloud—as though I knew the triviality of my game—my hand reaching out, just as the bear slipped, clasping on, saving the bear. Mother's eyes, kindly, thankful. Good. Sometime later, in my bed at night, in the dark, I wished for the bear. If only I could set him upright, against a tree, he would feel less awful about being lost. If I could tell him, it was an accidental loss. He was not a lost object to me then.

Some objects we keep hidden but can't abolish. Every time I move I have to deal with them. Many of mine are sentimental gifts from my mother like books meant to inspire. Anything trying to inspire me, fails. Sometimes, I wish she would simply send me a pine cone.

I prefer the life of objects remain mysterious and giddy. I almost always prefer mystery to fixed understanding. I like to remember the childhood objects so well loved by my sisters and I. A red purse, Hannah once filled with army worms, a cheep jewelery box with a spinning ballerina that required winding, a scrap of baby blanket my sister still sleeps with at age 29, stones, leaves, sticks, braided grass, and birch bark. They enter and retreat, sometimes laughing, sometimes silent. I admit, I give them human qualities, like laughter and sorrow.

As a child, Jen tells me, our world is so small that whatever is in front of us is of the utmost importance. But, when we grow older, a larger world unfolds, we have to choose what will be of value and what will not.

Still I fantasize about the life of so-called useless objects. The stone with yarn coiled round sits, and I suppose it is true it reminds me, calls meaning to me. I made the yarn on a windy fall day at a farm where I worked. The stone is not mine, nor is this piece of yarn made of sheep's wool and dye, of fingers twisting, fingers holding the twist, of fingers letting loose.

This is what I decide, then. Objects are the antithesis to letting go. “No,” they call out, “sit with, let be, remain.”