In this digital age, it’s easy to take immateriality for granted. Books weigh nothing more than typography rendered as pixels, music albums are tangible only as waveforms passing through the air, and photographs live in the infinite shoebox of the cloud.
So lately, when physical things press their surfaces onto my life, I’ve begun to experience that presence as pressure—insistent, persistent, excessively so.
I have nothing against owning physical things; it is a well-known fact that you cannot snuggle in, embrace, or caress bits and bytes of information. But it is also a unique requirement of city living (and perhaps simple, direct living) that you don’t gather too much of it all at once.
That’s why today I decided, on a whim, to clear my apartment of extraneous things. Things that have outgrown their usefulness, and sit on shelves gathering dust and wishful thinking.
I went about this haphazardly, energetically. (Maybe it was the spring breeze.) In several plastic bags went bowls, bags, shoes, ties, mugs, picture frames, jewelry… and before I could think too hard about it, I was clanking out the door. I came back an hour later with a receipt from Housing Works.
Later in the day, while riding the subway, a clear image of one of the items I had given away surfaced. I pushed it away, determined to get on with life. It resurfaced. (See what I mean about persistence?) I gave in and turned the item over in my mind.
The object was a mug, plain and white, cylindrical, with a sparse pattern of black dots near the rim. Inside the mug is a hand-painted ceramic dog. I could picture in my mind every crack on that dog, etched deep brown from countless hot chocolates and strong black teas.
The mug was given to me by Yang, my significant other of nearly 10 years. It was one of the first gifts he had ever given me, and I thought it was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever seen. I mean, it had a tiny dog in the bottom! Adding to my delight upon receiving it was the fact that he had found it himself. Like, he actually had go someplace trendy like Newbury Street (Boston, baby!), and shop. For me.
Let’s be honest here, this is someone for whom buying 3 oranges at the supermarket is a challenge, so I was pretty impressed. (I love you!)
Needless to say, this mug was significant to me. And the more I thought about it, the more I regretted giving it away.
Even though the mug hadn’t touched a drop of tea in over 2 years, I wanted it back. I wanted it back because it was a talisman, a gateway to that same feeling of delight I felt when receiving it, and to all those evenings in college spent cradling it through late-night conversations and study sessions. The fact that it wasn’t being used anymore didn’t matter. This wasn’t a mug, this was a sepia-toned photograph.
And this is why people have basements and closets, attics and garages. Our emotional attachment to objects is a force of nature.
Instead of berating myself for regretting, for clinging, for living too much in the past and all those things we’re not supposed to do in a life well-lived, I’d like to propose a toast:
Here’s to objects
…for their evocative potency, for their unique ability to enable was well as encapsulate the events of life, as both catalyst and container.
Here’s to physicality
…always a meaningful part of our existence (At least, until the singularity claims us) and the thoughtful struggles it inspires in us as we gasp for space.
And here’s to memory
…to information stored in a medium far more fragile than ceramic, glass, stone, fabric, or wood, yet able to persist despite fires and hurricanes, war and migration, obsolescence and small apartments.