Bearings: Positioning Ourselves in Time and Space via Small Treasures
‘You can read people from what’s in their bathrooms’, my friend said with an enigmatic grin, returning from mine to a dinner table of chattering friends, leaving his conclusions unspoken. Hmm. Squeaky bath ducks, art, plants and tropical shells—did I come across as Pollyanna-ish? Or did the toothpaste tube squeezed from the reckless middle rather than from the obsessive-compulsive bottom balance me by exposing my shadow side? Did I care?
I cared a bit—who doesn’t want to be well thought of—but later my thoughts curled around the complex meanings to us, rather than to others, of the small objects we keep and treasure. Not expensive, status-laden decorative ones—like the Steuben art-glass animals so pitilessly mocked in Woody Allen’s film ‘Alice’. And not purely functional ones—instead, those freighted with personal meaning, tethered to memories of people and place. Things that calm, strengthen and delight us, that remind us of who we are—possibly even talismanic ones that position us in time and space, that can’t be fully ‘read’ by others, and that bear essential truths that are ours alone.
English 20th century paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott developed important ‘object relations theory’ ideas about ‘transitional objects’—teddy bears, blankets, dolls and the like—providers of replacement comfort for young children, serving to wean them from the first comfort objects, breasts, and later from complete dependence on mothers or caregivers. It’s not hard to extend Winnicott’s theory to the special things that soothe and anchor us as adults, and to think about the unique inner templates developed in childhood that align us with particular objects.
I knew a man raised from infancy by nannies and sent to boarding school as a small boy, while his younger half-brothers lived at home with his father and step-mother. As an adult, he rattled around alone in the vast rooms of a grand, historic country house, cramming them with rare, expensive things he hunted out with single-minded focus. Without secure human attachment in his young life, relationships with people were risky; as an adult, his closest companions were what he collected—inanimate, always under his control, reliably there.
William Morris, the 19th century English polymath—poet, social activist, interior designer—dispensed this advice: ‘have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ Yes, all very well, and a helpful gate-keeping filter to curb out-of-control hoarding. But what about things that don’t match such a lofty ideal? Those potent but un-useful and un-beautiful memory stewards, like ‘Rosebud’, the sled in Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane, found and burned by the unhappy rich man’s staff after his death— its significance unknown to them, stratified for Kane alone with memories of his carefree childhood.
A new breed of professional de-clutterers ‘help’ those leaping on the ‘get-rid-of-it’ bandwagon towards sparer domestic interiors by advocating keeping only what ‘sparks joy’—an emotional yardstick devised by de-cluttering queen, Marie Kondo. Ignoring advice from the less-than-sentimental, I stubbornly hold on to objects that don’t necessarily ‘spark joy’, yet remain valued keys to storehouses of personal history. Far from the epitome of good design or good taste, some are kitsch and downright ugly, but keep me in touch with memories I plan to re-experience as long as I draw breath.
Touchstones were, and still are to many, powerful aides-memoires with beneficial qualities thrown in. On pagan and religious pilgrimages, the devout carried stones for the purpose of touching them to sacred objects or places, with the idea of capturing something of their power; they kept the stones for later use as amulets. Perhaps a similar logic lay behind my cousin’s quick dart from a posse of shrieking teenage girls to snatch up a piece of cardboard stepped on by Paul McCartney in a lane behind Melbourne’s Southern Cross hotel when he sprinted with fellow Beatles to a waiting car.
Coiled within our special little portable things lie memories and emotional residues that speak in non-verbal languages. Never inert or empty as long as they’re with us, they’re alive with stories. Giving them up in de-cluttering frenzies could separate us from recollections that may later unravel something we need to understand. Like hill-top landmarks in the days before maps and GPS, or like Tardis’ containing more inside than outside, our small treasures provide unique bearing-setting powers. By carrying our relationship to the past, and adding meaning to the present, they can also orient us towards who we’ll become. As personal history lenses, they offer us changing views of ourselves in successive eras of our lives, working as valuable scrying instruments for self-reflection.
Stories from the photographs
Mottled, and barnacled with crystallised sugar, a century-old chocolate violin lies in a wooden matchbox from Finland. My great-grandfather, a young lawyer in his thirties, presented it to my grandmother early in the 20th century, and she gave it to me. Her enchantment with it kept her from wolfing it down, showing even as a child her admirable capacity for restraint in the face of temptation. And lingering on its time-altered surface, possible traces of my great-grandfather’s DNA—a frisson-inducing link to him each time I hold it.
Etched with entwined flowers and leaves, from a set belonging to my paternal grandfather—another family lineage connection. A reminder of everyone’s essential mystery, of their unknowable parts. In unfathomable despair, he took his own life on a lonely lake shore in his early 50s, eight years before my birth. Loving and well-loved, the reasons for his decision elude his family. He drank from this glass in happier times; knowing that brings solace.
Bi-coloured granite stone
Picked up on a cold New Year’s Day walk on the long blustery stretch of St Ouen’s beach on Jersey, in the Channel Islands. As we strolled and talked, my friends’ children—small anoraked-and-hatted bundles—rushed at crowds of beaks-to-the-breeze wind-ruffled gulls, sending them up banking and screeching. These children are grown now. Since that visit, I haven’t seen them again, but via a souvenired granite stone, I still ‘see’ their little arms waving, and ‘hear’ their wind-scooped laughter.
Lined up like a sardine with five others in a six-berth couchette cabin, I slept fitfully on an all-night train journey from Spain to Paris. Not long after an early morning arrival, fate delivered me and my American boyfriend to a Parisian oil merchant—a tale too long to tell here. When he discovered it was my 21st birthday, this gallant man took us under his generous wing. On a blissful summer’s day that included lunch accompanied by a bottle of Bollinger at celebrated Le Dôme in Montparnasse, and an al fresco dinner in Montmartre’s Place du Tertre in sight of the dome of Sacré-Cœur, we drove south of Paris in the intervening time. Wandering through the light-dappled Forest of Fontainebleau, we followed the sound of music to a man sitting cross-legged on a fallen tree, playing the flute in shafts of late-afternoon sunlight. On the forest floor, buttercups ready for picking and pressing—future reminders of a day made perfect by the kindness of a stranger.
Feature and photography © 2015 by Susie Surtees