I’ve never had a passion for “things,” never the habit of accumulation. The only thing I ever really accumulated over time were books, and even those I’ve pared from my shelves so that only a treasured few remain. I grew up without wealth (although often surrounded by it), had very little money in college and for several years after that. Life has been good to me and I am fortunate.
But really this is not a post about consumerism, or about wealth, but rather one about how unexpectedly significant even the simplest item can be, the Proustian madeleines of our lives.
The website The Burning House asks us to imagine we are in a house on fire and have only a moment to gather the things that meant the most —not only those that are practical but those that sustain and reflect who we are. This is a wonderful question, which I’ve yet to answer, but which brings to mind another.
What are the things in your life that have held the most meaning to you? No need for matches or survival gear, no need to save your spouse or your dog, purely things, some owned, others coveted, others glimpsed and dreamt of, all remembered forever.
Not books. That would be too easy, and too heavy on this journey (let’s assume we’re taking pre e-books). There are books I love as if they were lovers or children, but let’s talk of things, for example…
The brown English school satchel that my friend Becca Nye gave to me (it had been her handsome brother’s, which made it all the more magical in my 12-year-old mind. (Note that this image is from a company who sells them, and I toy with ordering one some day, although it could never be as magical as that one.)
The painting (alas, not exactly the one shown here) I saw one day in the studio of a NYC friend, now back in his native Guatemala, Alfredo Ceibal. I remember there was a girl and a staircase behind her which seemed to go on forever and ever. I remember it was blue. I remember that I dreamt of it, and ached to have it, but that to buy it would have far exceeded my meager budget. (Years later I mentioned this painting to him, and he was unsure which one it was, my description fitting so many of his works.)
The batik-patched cat doll my stepmother (who died soon after) sent me while I was at girl-scout camp. I am convinced I somehow saved it from grubby toddler hands, and am hoping it’s tucked away somewhere safe.
The comforter I saved and saved and then saved some more for, a pale blue with blue-green shimmery swirls dancing over its wavy surface. It reminded me of the sea, and made me happy each time I looked at it. I lent it to a student in need of a warm blanket and it was left somewhere in a dorm or a closet.
The black cashmere men’s oversized v-neck sweater, given to me by my boss and friend, Ángel, who in turn received it as a gift from his friend, a famous European playwright. It was inky black and knit from the most lusciously soft yarn. Each time I slipped it over my head I sighed with pure pleasure. Even if I could afford such a thing today, I could never bring myself to pay what no doubt would be necessary to purchase such beautiful cashmere. I do not remember what happened to it, just that it is no more.
There are others. A rug I saw in a catalogue which had a very graphically stenciled hand of fatima, or hamza on it. I did not indulge myself to buy it, not needing a rug, not needing much of anything, but have dreamed of it ever since. When I finally tried to find it again I found a cold trail.
How they made me happy, these things…each in their own way, whether for their provenance or their color, their texture or their beauty. I’d rather have few things when those that I have hold meaning, magic.
Perhaps my love of the simple stems from the fact that I can have more, if I want. “First-world problems,” as my wise-beyond-her-sixteen-years lovely daughter always says, describing the angst of privilege we see so often. But I’ve been truly fortunate to have lived with little, and doing so has taught me much about what truly makes me happy, what truly fulfills me: not things, but moments and thoughts and words and emotions. I’ve never been seduced into thinking that more things yields more joy. But I still appreciate things, yes I do.
Indeed, one of my favorite scenes from Little Women, which in its simplicity represents for me not only what gift-giving should be, but how the value of things is only relevant to from whence it came, a symbol of a time, a place, a person:
Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey. She woke Meg with a “Merry Christmas,” and bade her see what was under her pillow. A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes. Presently Beth and Amy woke to rummage and find their little books also, one dove-colored, the other blue, and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the east grew rosy with the coming day.