Today I stumbled into an antique shop near my home: the real deal: a barn with creaking floor boards through which you can see the ground. I was wandering through cramped spaces filled with tin toys, embroidered wedding veils, McCoy pottery, and hand knotted rugs. I tend to search for small artifacts from my own childhood in a place like this; I'll ogle a cut glass tumbler because I remember the western sun travelling through one just like it at the dinner table. I once impulsively spent $60 on a metronome because it resembled one that sat on top of the piano in our kitchen growing up; and I bought a red leather wallet at Value Village in College Park, MD last spring because I remember the same one being clutched in my mother's calloused fingers - even though the real wallet had been used until it's suede was rubbed down to the greasy underlayer and the creases frayed and broke; I still felt like something about me was holed up somewhere in the billfold. I didn't buy much today - just an unfinished quilt - but I started to think, as I talked with the owner, about how powerful objects really are in our lives.
It's funny to consider how an object can connect us to people - maybe not any old object - even if someone gave me a generous gift - like, say, a plasma TV, or a wii - chances are I wouldn't latch onto one of those things as a rememberance, but I would give anything just to look at the blackthorn walking stick my grandfather used until he died. I know that the walking stick serves no real purpose to me, but I yearn for it to be near me. Why?
I guess this whole line of thinking started in my classroom the other day, when on the first day of wold lit I pulled out a bag full of artifacts from around the world, and asked my students to think about their origins; who might have made them, and what they could represent. After the kids checked out a few objects we distributed them on a large world map that was spread out on the floor. You could see the story starting to foment: the kids avoided a few things - a hand crafted felt horse from Kyrgistan, a flour sack from Zaire, a handblown glass utility pole insulator from upstate New York - and gravitated toward objects that were more familiar - a happy meal toy, a baseball mitt. Do we avoid what we don't understand? Or is it just the opposite - are we always seeking our comforts in any form we can? When I asked the kids what they noticed, one girl brought up the question of production - the happymeal toy was made in China, but the kids in China may or may not recognize the reference to How to Train a Dragon. The Kyrgyz child knows horses. And further, one would never be able to find and use the materials that go into the American toy, made in China, by an industrial mechanism. It took a community of people, plants, and animals to come together collectively to make the horse.
I have to say, the horse has soul. I admire the horse. I admire the relationship between this culture of people and the resources they have available to them. The horse is proof that human beings are ingenious. It is proof that we are a tough species that can survive the toughest of conditions, and celebrate while we do so. We are talking about an object that from its earliest conception required so many layers of collaboration. From yaks that are grazed and then shorn, to clutches of women who felted, and foraged for dye, and dyed, and spun, and sewed every particle that went into the object. It must have taken hours to make such a thing. People lived and breathed the process. That's the story.
Maybe I have a fondness for the small things that bring me back to my childhood because I lived and breathed them. Maybe I want to see my grandfather's walking stick again because I want to know that he lived and breathed in such a way that it built up a petina on that object; and when I saw that the small thing was gone from where it had once been, it meant that he had really gone as well. An object can be proof. It is our story written in its nicks and dents.
I wonder, now, what to do with this metronome.