Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Life of Objects

Earlier this year, I read Susanna Moore’s novel, The Life of Objects. It’s an interesting book—spare in its prose, sharp in its focus, devastating in its author’s willingness to describe the horror and terror faced (for once, at least in my reading history) by “regular” Germans living under Nazi rule.  (The ones in the book, fabulous wealthy collectors of unimaginably valuable art, are second-level victims of the Nazis’ brutish barbarism, although surely not in the sense that we would normally use the word: they survive, mostly, and their “stuff” mostly survives too.) At first, I found myself offended by the title, suggestive (as it is clearly meant to be) of the preposterous notion—as insulting to “real” survivors as it is demeaning to the dead—that these gorgeous things that the Metzenburgs own were “victims” of the Nazis too, the latter depicted here not solely as the murderers of countless innocents but also as boors who had no respect for objets d’art, not for their value and certainly not for their beauty.  That’s what the author has to say about the Nazis? That they had bad taste?

But then, upon reflecting upon the book in the weeks after I read it—and I really do recommend it to you, not least of all because of the portrait drawn of its protagonist, an innocent Irish girl who signs on as a domestic servant in the Metzenburgs’ palatial home and at their country estate mostly for the sake of escaping the doldrums of her hum-drum life in a town on the west coast of Ireland. But what stays with me after all these months is not that portrait, or at least not that portrait per se, but rather the author’s more basic premise: that objects, that things, have lives of their own. And that they are not merely the props in the plays that are our lives, but—in some real, non-Disney-esque sense—players themselves that come on stage and then disappear not because they must or can, but because they do. The notion that young Beatrice grows through her admittedly horrific wartime experience through her association not only with her employers but also with their things…and that those things are not mere trinkets but family members in their own right (and, believe me, I know how odd that must read to people reading this who haven’t actually read the book)—that is the idea that’s stayed with me.

Shelter Rockers all know that I have my own odd relationship to the world of things. I have returned many times in my preaching to the question of what happens to the things of the world once the people holding onto them let go either for a moment or for good. Like everybody, I had four great-grandmothers and eight great-great-grandmothers. Those dozen women must all have had wedding bands, but the rings have all vanished. Surely, no one would sell a mother’s wedding band for a few dollars! Were my great- and great-great-grandmas buried with their rings on their fingers? But even if they were buried wearing them, which I doubt, then where are their k’tubbot, their wedding certificates? I have my mother’s parents’ k’tubbah framed nicely and hanging in our dining room. Our own k’tubbah, made by myself in one of my rare forays into the world of graphic arts, is hanging in our living room. But where are my other ancestors’ k’tubbot? I had four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents. That would yield a total of fourteen k’tubbot, of which all but one are gone. (I don’t have my own parents’ either, which I also find semi-amazing.) Where did they all go? How can it be that, of all those households, not a stick of furniture, not a book, not a framed piece of needlepoint, not a ring or a bracelet or a string of pearls, not a k’tubbah or a prayerbook or a tallis…how can it be that all of it is simply gone from the world? And then there is the horrifying corollary of that thought: will some one of my descendants in the 23rd century say the same of Joan and me, that we must have had a k’tubbah, that we must have had wedding bands, that we must have had a whole houseful of stuff. You see where I’m going. And it’s not the most encouraging place to go in terms of the fantasy I both cherish and foster that I personally will make a mark, will always be remembered…at least by my own descendants, that my books will remain a cherished part of our family’s heritage even long after I personally have drifted off to the World of Truth, or wherever.

Last week, we had a flood in our basement. It was one of those bitterly cold days. Everything was frozen solid—everything, that is, except the pipes in the wall behind our washing machine, which I wish had been frozen solid but which burst from some bad combination of the cold and the water that expanded as it froze inside them. By the time I realized what had happened, there were at least six inches of very cold water on the floor of the basement. Not having any good idea what to do, I called Andy Canle, who manages our custodial staff and who is enormously handy and capable with respect to all physical things…including burst pipes. He came over, knew exactly how to turn the water off, got the water, at least, to stop rising. Then he went to get a pump and to phone the plumber and I myself was left at home alone to take whatever steps I could to save what I could. There was a lot of stuff! Some of it was on the floor, but the water rose up into the lower shelves of all those many cupboards in the basement in which are stored the stuff of our lives that isn’t in current use.

The Pesach dishes did fine. (We wash them each year before using them anyway.) But the rest was a grab-bag. The TV was ruined. (No loss there—why did we even have a television set in the basement?) The piano—the piano of my childhood that used to live in my parents’ living room—came away unscathed.  The fold-out couch will be fine, I think, once it dries out completely. But the rest of the rest, the more ephemeral stuff…Joan’s teaching files from back when people xeroxed stuff and put it in manila folders for later reference, hundreds of floppy disks (both the 5.25 inch and the 3.5 inch variety) from more than a decade of my own research, thousands of pages of galleys for Siddur Tzur Yisrael that I never quite got around to dealing with, files with mortgage documents from our houses in British Columbia and California, cartons of papers relating to novels I published years ago or hoped to publish one day, even some papers and bills from our first New York period (the one that followed our marriage in 1980 and lasted until we left for Israel in 1983)…all of it floating on a sea of ice-cold water and daring me not just to throw it all out.

I passed the test. Out it all went. I don’t even own a computer with a floppy drive, so who needs those disks? (Whatever data was worth saving has been securely—I hope—stored in the cloud for years now.)  In the unlikely event that Joan takes up Hebrew School teaching again, whatever teaching materials she could possibly need are all on-line. No one—not even my most intensely investigative biographer (hah!)—will be interested in mortgage documents relating to the purchase of 10240 Sandiford Drive or 10462 Kozier Drive. And so…out it all went in one sodden mess. And somewhere in those many black garbage bags soon to be sitting on our curb lay the answer to my question: this is what happens to people’s stuff. Life happens. Floods happen. Burst pipes happen. The world keeps turning, but everything else comes and eventually goes. Heraclitus, it turns out, was right—it’s all in flux, the world is an endlessly flowing river, it’s not just time that passes by never to return but the things of this world as well. Including k’tubbot. Including floppy disks. Including wedding bands. (That still seems unlikely to me…but then where are all those rings?) Definitely including old mortgage documents. And definitely definitely including the notes for unwritten or partially written novels.

The Torah mentions almost en passant that shortly after the manna began to fall from heaven, Moses told Aaron to take up a measure of manna and to put it on display “before God,” so that subsequent generations would be able to see it and develop appropriate feelings of gratitude towards the God who sustained their forebears in the wilderness. And so, the Torah also reports, did Aaron do, putting a container of manna right before the Tablets of the Law in the Holy of Holies. Other than the stone tablets themselves, how could there be a more sacred relic? And yet it somehow disappeared. As did the tablets themselves and the wooden ark that contained them. As did the flask of oil used to anoint the priests of Israel. As did Aaron’s rod, the one that sprouted almond blossoms to prove that it was he and his descendants that God chose to be the priests of Israel and which Scripture specifically says too was kept in the Holy of Holies before the Tablets of the Law. The holiest of things…and all gone into the mist of time past. (The Talmud says clearly that the ark itself was hidden away by King Josiah…but where exactly it went and why it was never retrieved—those are questions that no one can or ever has answered.)

If relics of the greatest intrinsic sanctity could somehow disappear, then anything can. As I was wading in my bare feet in our basement (not the smartest idea given how cold the water was, but what else could I do?) and watching the things of our life simply float past me on their way to becoming landfill somewhere, I felt distressed and very unhappy. Later on, though, I felt better…and now it seems to me that this is how it all really does work. It’s not amazing that most things disappear. That I have my grandparents’ k’tubbah hanging in our dining room, that’s what’s amazing! That Joan has my mother’s wedding band. That my mother’s gorgeous diamond-and-sapphire earrings somehow turned into my daughter’s wedding ring. It’s not amazing that it all doesn’t last. It’s amazing that anything at all does.

I didn’t enjoy the whole experience, but maybe I did manage to learn something from it. I have no need to repeat the experience. But one thing my mother did actually leave behind is the lesson that this whole incident reminded me to remember: that no experience that teaches you something important should be regretted…even if the experience itself isn’t so pleasant. Being smarter, Mom used to say, is better than being comfortable. Learning a lesson that you will retain permanently is better than avoiding a few minutes of discomfort. It’s not that easy a point to embrace while you’re up to past your ankles in frigid water. But eventually, later on…once your feet thaw out and you feel unexpectedly at peace with the world and the ephemeral nature of its things…that’s when my mother’s point seems fully cogent. Knowing how the world works is better than having dry feet. At least in the long run!

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