Some Thoughts About “Things”

There are two men in our small city who have become familiar figures to most of us. Lean and weathered, they push loaded carts along the streets and sidewalks; unlike most street people they are keen-eyed and determined; they seem to know where they’re going. Reputed to be brothers — they look almost identical — they are ubiquitous, seen in most neighborhoods, sometimes together, sometimes alone. One of them has a hitch in his gait as if his legs are different lengths. Their shopping carts are filled to overflowing, the contents restrained by tarps and rope. I have no idea where they sleep — possibly the mission, possibly the street.

When I pass these men in my car I’m filled with predictable middle-class pangs of sorrow and guilt and amazement that no one is helping them, myself included. Word has it that they’ve received help in the past, that one of them had some surgery, but here they are, still limping through the streets.

I have speculated a lot about what is contained in those overloaded arts which look extremely heavy to push. Blankets? Sleeping bags? Clothing? Rain tarp? Cans and glass they can recycle for cash? A mug and a plate and a fork perhaps? But what is stowed there beyond the rudimentary objects necessary for survival and comfort? I can’t guess. But whatever it is, it must be important to warrant the extra weight. Maybe they carry objects of sentimental value like family photographs, or something made by a parent like a painting or sculpture. Maybe there’s a stuffed animal from childhood. Perhaps some electrical devices, like a radio, they can use when they have access to a plug. Perhaps there are tools in there, hammer and nails, pliers, a wrench — tools always come in handy no matter what life you’re leading. There is industry in these brothers, you can see it in the way they move, and I can imagine them building things.

We humans commonly distinguish ourselves from other species because we are tool users. Tools — hammers, saws, nails, wheels, pots and pans and ovens, and eventually trains and planes and computers and cell phones — have made us who we are, expanding our brains and our dominion over the planet, for better or worse, making it nearly impossible to imagine who we would be without these enabling objects. We are all so dependent on tools and objects. The first thing I turn to in the morning is my coffee maker, along with the coffee mug and the pitcher that holds the milk. Eventually I will turn to more “things” to ready myself for the day: soap and a toothbrush, a shower and clean clothes. To do almost anything I move through a world of objects as our predecessors once moved through the trees. Many of these objects make life easier, or more comfortable, or more beautiful, or more stimulating. Most of these things I use without giving them much thought.

What would I put in my shopping cart if I were living on the streets? Items for comfort first and foremost: blankets, pillows, a pad for sleeping on, a couple of changes of clothing, some toiletries, a water bottle. Then what? I’m coming up short. There are many objects I use and value in my daily life, but what is most essential? My computer, I suppose, though it’s hard to imagine how I would use that if living on the street. My phone charger. A book or two. Some pads and pens for writing. The list grows, though it’s a list that probably bears no relationship to the life I’d be living if reduced to living out of a shopping cart.

A little over a year ago a fire came close to the city where I live, and it came even closer to the homes of friends who live on the river an hour or so out of town. People had to evacuate without warning, taking nothing with them. The fire leveled countless homes and left unrecoverable smoke damage in many of the homes left standing. The loss seems unimaginable. People who suffered loss in that fire are still recovering. I feel I need to wrap my mind around such loss, knowing it could, in the future, be mine. I’m sure I would mourn my lost photo albums telling the story of my son’s development. I would mourn the art on our walls made by friends, and the colorful quilts I’ve collected. I would mourn the living room couch, which has hosted so many gatherings with loved ones. I would mourn my bicycle, my cross-country skis, my favorite books and items of cherished clothing. I catalogue these things and yet it is impossible, from this side of things, the side of things where I remain, as yet, unharmed, to know what particular items would be most keenly missed. My husband, an avid cook, would miss his pots and pans and cooking utensils. We would both miss the house itself.

Even as I live a “life of the mind” I am acutely aware of living happily amidst objects. I don’t think I’m overly attached, but the attitude of a friend whose attachment to things is much looser than mine makes me wonder. She enjoys pretty things, she makes them and gathers them from Goodwill, but if you admire a shirt she’s wearing she’ll take it off and give it to you. Objects come and go in her life. I admire this loose relationship to objects. I think of the time I became fixated on a red leather jacket that had acquired an outsized place in my imagination. I was at a writers residency in France and on our weekly shopping trip to town for groceries, I spotted, displayed in the window of one of the shops we passed, a stunning red leather jacket. There was no time to stop and look at it, so I biked back alone, only to find the shop was closed. The jacket was still there in the window, beckoning to me. Twice more I biked back and found the shop closed. Each time I was denied the chance to look at that jacket and try it on, the more it became, in my imagination, an object that might transform me. It looked like the kind of jacket a fierce woman might wear, a woman who knew herself and could make things happen. By the time I finally entered the shop, and felt the jacket’s soft leather against my skin, I already felt it was mine. Back at home, the jacket has retained its symbolism. I wear it proudly, and it empowers me, and I think about who will wear it after I die.

I am not alone in assigning importance to objects. The Egyptian Pharaohs went to their tombs surrounded by an array cherished and symbolic objects. Our rituals and celebrations, religious and secular, are rife with sacred or meaningful objects such as rings, crosses, candles, trophies. And we all have objects of special meaning in our personal lives. Family photographs. A baby’s lock of hair. A piece of furniture or a quilt handed down from a grandparent. Trinkets given to use by a lover when we were courting. I have never been able to part with such things even when their emotional charge has been spent. I still have a velvet-lined basket made by a man with whom I had a brief affair in my twenties. Though the passion it once spoke of has dissipated I keep it because it sparks a fond memory.

As you can probably tell by now, I am searching for a proper relationship to objects, appreciating them without needing them, reminding myself of the role of consumerism in climate degradation, trying to be intentional about what comes into my house and stays here.

I have a map of the objects in my world. I know where most of the things I need “live” — the paper and pens, the go-to hoodie, the scissors, the tape, the books I need to consult for research, the heavy quilt we will need as the weather gets colder. I know where the leaf blower is, and the key to the grandfather clock we haven’t kept running for years. To some degree the locations of these things define the perimeters of my world, the homeground where I have dominion.

A time is coming when I will be moving around the world with less ease. ALS will limit — has already limited — my ability to lift and carry things. Trips away from home will become more exhausting and less frequent. And getting around the house will become more difficult too. I will no longer need athletic equipment, or dress-up clothes, or gardening gloves. As the perimeter of my world shrinks, what will happen to the map in my head? Will I simply forget about the possessions that have lost utility for me. Will I redraw my mental map so it’s smaller and smaller like the brothers with their shopping carts?

I imagine those brothers probably know something the rest of us don’t know. That it’s possible to have your world shrink, your possessions reduced to what fits in a shopping cart, and still live a life with dignity.

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.