I have looked and looked
who I am, or where,
or, more importantly, why.
- Mary Oliver, from A River Far Away and Long Ago
My daughter graduates from medical school next week. From California and from across Washington we will gather at her hooding ceremony as she receives her degree with honors in medicine. I will be filled with thoughts that if they weren't so familiar to all of you... What a long strange journey it's been. The years bound up in talismans and objects, symbols and charms.
I thought back to a post here, written exactly two years ago. I was having a conversation with my daughter on the ways her college major in Art History prepared her for medicine. The study of art was a path of joy for her, a genuine, lifelong passion, and midway through her medical studies, she noted the unexpected ways one passion had bridged to another. Art History had become her foundation for the study of medicine. She spoke about the ways understanding, cataloguing, researching, and appreciating art taught her to notice details; trained her to retain enormous amounts of relevant, sometimes incomplete data; underscored the importance of provenance (source and diagnosis); and developed skills in correlation and interpretation. "Learning to see," she said, "comes before knowing what it is you're looking at."
This thought has stayed with me. I had the experience, as many of us have, of helping someone close down a house awhile ago. As I helped to sort and toss, piling things for charity, for the dump, for storage, I thought about all the ways "stuff" stands as this great, strange emporium of our lives. A map of experiences and transitions. A personal imprint left behind. A room of 1000-piece puzzle boxes... Owned by someone who loved intricate challenges, or an extremely lonely person? Baby gifts in their original wrapping, never given. Canning jars in multiples; light bulbs, winter tires. A wine cellar with an impressive collection hidden behind a messy and cluttered junk room. A grand unfinished library. A cross-bow. A broken violin. Bulk stale chocolates. Mismatched diningware and drawers and drawers of holiday tea towels. Fake flowers with the price tags on. A dog's ashes in an unmarked tin canister on the mantle.
Personal belongings speak a strange truth: what we are drawn to, once found precious, what things we ignore or leave behind. Some of us believe everything, even junk, has value and nothing of value should be dismissed. Or we are minimalists - too burdened by objects to invite them in. Maybe we are sentimentalists carrying the objects of generations around with us - human "family attics."
Kristine Trego, PhD, Professor of Classics at Bucknell University and underwater shipwreck archeologist, spoke to a group of us in the Mediterranean about her work on ancient Greek trading vessels off the coast of Turkey. From the most mundane daily objects in a sunken ship's galley she was able to gain insight into the daily lives of people from long ago: a weighted candle cup, a remnant of navigation, small good luck charms. Foods from multiple lands suggest the origin of the crew or the ship's trading path.
Dr. Trego was fascinated by the human tendency to collect: a passion shared with other species as it turns out. Inside an almost perfectly preserved amphora found on the sea floor, her divers disturbed a small octopus. Inside his watery pottery "home" were artifacts from a nearby shipwreck the archeologists were interested in recovering. When they reached into the jar remove an item, the octopus snaked out an arm and pulled it back. This tug-of-war went on without end, much to the amusement of the divers, finally prompting the crew to make a rule in honor of this creature's tenacity: No one was allowed to catch or eat any of the critters inhabiting the objects of the wreck. Bad karma, their thinking went. The sea dwellers were the "archeologists on site" before the humans were.
I've often wondered at the public appeal (and melancholy) of anonymous thrift stores, yard sales, and auctions. Curiosity and sadness lies in the exposure of the contents of our "jars." When we are gone or move on, without context these once-important things seem to diminish and lose their luster, take on a worn fragility. We turn the objects over in our hands, wondering what on earth someone would do with a can of bent nails.
As my daughter packs up her student life to head east for residency, she is thinning through the objects - the stuff - in her young life. Parsing memories from objects, aligning value and function. Wrapping with care. As the great British designer and curator William Morris, the focus of her thesis, famously said, "Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful."
It's not a bad rule for the inside of our heads either.