These objects that matter
Today, I am wearing a Tibetan necklace charm — chased and filigreed silver plate with embedded coral, turquoise and lapis cabochons. The back opens up like a poison ring, with plenty of room for pictures, small tumbled gemstone beads and even a snippet of hair from my beloved. A small vajra-like ornament is attached to the bottom. The whole pendant is about the size of a half-dollar and looks great with blue jeans and a dark shirt. I also got it for the bargain-basement price of $8.
But that’s not why I bought it two weeks ago. I bought it because it looked almost identical to a similar pendant I didn’t purchase in 2002. For 15 years, I regretted not buying it, and in the ensuing years I never lived or worked in areas where such things were available. That first pendant was offered to me on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, on my first ever vacation as an adult, by a street vendor who wanted $50. Even as I admired it, even as I wanted it then, even as I thought that $50 was a great price for such an unusual object, I turned it down.
This single object has since held a very specific romance for me, one that lingered far longer than I expected. But if that pendant is a long poem, then the fedora on my desk is a memoir of loss, the calendar of cats on my wall is an elaborate joke and the unused Zentangle kit hanging on my corkboard is apprehension and promise. They all speak. Most of my possessions do. If I can’t tell a story about something I own, I usually give it away.
Objects matter, too, because they claim meaning in our lives beyond what we expect. I have in my bookcase a very beat-up edition of T. S Eliot’s collected works, a Book Club edition broken at the spine (at “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat”). It was a gift from my mother — a friend gave her a ticket to see “Cats” and instead of bringing back the usual souvenirs like playbills and t-shirts, she gave me a copy of Eliot’s entire body of work. I have owned this book since I was nine years old, and it has moved with me to every single place I’ve lived. My mother passed away last year, but I have so much of her right there: the only family vacation we ever took with me reciting “The Hollow Men” from the rear of our station wagon; the volunteer project she and I took on when I was 17 based on Old Possum; the summer days when she relieved me of chores, which I spent reading Four Quartets. Eliot and my mother watched me grow up together, his words and her commands shaping me into the person I eventually became. I still read it, too; I pulled it off my shelf a month ago for a readathon and read aloud the Five Fingered Exercises. Both of them live in there, coming out every time I read.
The text of that book can be found in many places; Eliot was one of the most famous poets of the 20th century. But that specific book, in that binding, with those stains from eating a chocolate bar over “Ash Wednesday” and the dogeared corners on “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” — that’s what makes it mine. If those who inherit my belongings after my death keep almost nothing, I urge them to hold onto that book so that my mother and I will still live somewhere in this world. I also want them to keep that fedora. And that pendant.