Powerful Stuff

Lately I’ve been thinking about objects.  I mean stuff – like the coffee mug at my left and the oil paintings in my living room.  The fact is that objects hold a certain power over us.  They are laden with associations and meaning, which in turn evoke our emotions.  And emotion is the very stuff of life.

But we all know that stuff, whether trinkets or gems, does not bring us happiness.  In fact, our stuff can weigh us down.  How do we resolve this tension?  Beats me.

Last Saturday I went to an antique mart with my husband.  I came across an empty Charles Chips tin from the seventies.  Did you eat Charles Chips when you were a kid?  My grandmother always kept a tin of sour cream and onion in her kitchen.  The owner of my dad’s favorite clothing store kept a tin behind the register, and on Saturdays he’d open the lid and give me a hard pretzel.  Of course I bought that empty tin, and it watches over me from its perch atop the fridge, like my good kitchen angel.

I’ve found a couple of poems that express the power of objects.  Check these out:

“A Box of Pastels”

by Ted Kooser

I once held on my knees a simple wooden box
in which a rainbow lay dusty and broken.
It was a set of pastels that had years before
belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt,
and all of the colors she’d used in her work
lay open before me. Those hues she’d most used,
the peaches and pinks, were worn down to stubs,
while the cool colors — violet, ultramarine –
had been set, scarcely touched, to one side.
She’d had little patience with darkness, and her heart
held only a measure of shadow. I touched
the warm dust of those colors, her tools,
and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.

“A Story”

by Philip Levine

Everyone loves a story. Let’s begin with a house.
We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms
with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers
closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept
or big drawers that yawn open to reveal
precisely folded garments washed half to death,
unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.
There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen
must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one
with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling
to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions.
This was the center of whatever family life
was here, this and the sink gone yellow
around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,
ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point
of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.
Make no mistake, a family was here. You see
the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,
gray and certainly pine, shows through.
Father stood there in the middle of his life
to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof
must surely be listening. When no one answered
you can see where his heel came down again
and again, even though he’d been taught
never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;
they had well water they pumped at first,
a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood
at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly
to where the woods once held the voices
of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs
of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered
one tree at a time after the workmen arrived
with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill
is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,
those two stained ridges were handholds
she relied on; they never let her down.
Where is she now? You think you have a right
to know everything? The children tiny enough
to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms
of their own and to abandon them, the father
with his right hand raised against the sky?
If those questions are too personal, then tell us,
where are the woods? They had to have been
because the continent was clothed in trees.
We all read that in school and knew it to be true.
Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows
of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes
into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,
there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles
of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

Still not convinced?  Read The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.  After reading this novel, I started a mental catalogue of the objects in my house, noting their history and meaning to me.  I thought of the hands that had held them and the other homes they had rested in before mine.  As it turns out, to dismiss objects – to simply say, “you can’t take it with you” – is to gloss over the complexity of our stuff.


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