Friday, July 7, 2017
Christine sorts through Mari’s things for the 11th time since I started seeing her 17 years ago. We have known each other longer than her daughter, Mari, lived, dying at age 15. Christy has moved twice since Mari lapsed from consciousness. Each subsequent house has felt temporary, and each had a bedroom in which Mari should have gone to sleep and awakened every morning. The final retirement home will have no empty bedroom for Mari’s ghost.
Most of us worship at the shrine of a unified self. We remember, and by inviting memories—sharp or vague, garnished with fear, humiliation or gladness–build a chronology, a through line for ourselves. See, here we are at the beach, Mari and me. And at every Halloween she wore a different witch hat; and there I sat, typing up my poems on an IBM Selectric word processor.
We develop into multiplicities; layered versions of our mythological, monolithic notions of me. Our various selves, in different moments, or linked to different people or places or passions or defeats form a crowd that sometimes coheres and sometimes conflicts; occasionally a self sits alone, isolated from the rest. The crystalline Christine has lost a main facet. For years she has obscured that lopsidedness by shoring up Mari’s things, even as they, too, desiccate, shred, fade, attenuate, turn transparent as a dying butterfly’s wings.
After 17 years and 11 times sorting through Mari’s belongings, Christy has yet to find a satisfying sense of completion. The new retirement house, the empty nest and the one floor maintenance-free manifestation of success in living long enough to slough off unnecessary accoutrements helps though. This weeding has got to be the last.
An archaeologist, fingering relics of infinite sorrow, Christy has done the work of grievers: Lit candles at the shrine on Mari’s birthday and the day she died; sat in groups for parents whose children have died, read the library of self-help books, journaled, written commemorative stories, scanned pictures into Shutterfly books, testified and won the malpractice suit, and talked with me. She as she is, Christy refused the settlement offer in favor of telling her daughter’s story, and perhaps, year after year, she comes back to sit with me every three or four weeks, to tell her daughter’s story again. This is what she has left of motherhood.
That Christy cannot “move on,” a capstone phrase of our culture, might presuppose a narrative of failure, in life, and perhaps in therapy. As I talk with Christy, I brush away some cobwebs of occupational failure myself; that she still comes, still needs me. How my helping has never arrived at an outcome we imaginable as complete, or successful.
I have offered her an ‘out’ on occasion, a kind of graduation from therapy, but she wants to come back. Perhaps, like an omnipresent and patient dog, no matter for how long, I am simply willing to hear again her story, Mari’s story. To tear up each time she tears up. Most people “don’t want to hear,” she tells me. Her mother, her sister and brother, her friends, even her husband who shares a parent’s loss.
So, my willingness, and my diligent witnessing, surpass any analytical intelligence or interventional strategy I might employ to pull her from the abyss of inconsolable, and as the literature has it, “complicated grief.” I honor Christy who has an unparalleled capacity to bend and gaze and breathe and remember, and replay and ruminate and touch her daughter’s decomposing things and tell, again and again, her story. Together we reconstruct this dinosaur of grief from bone fragments and shards of information, with slight but significant differences. But there is no return to Christy of her own person, and certainly not of Mari.
The thing is, Mari died because of a confluence of medical negligence. And not because of any lapse on Christy’s part. But as a mother, she needs to hold on to an alternate reality in which, if she discovers the necessary details of omniscience and omnipotence, she could have, and would have, saved her daughter. This seeking and puzzle solving keeps Christy alive. And who am I, in the service of mental health, to disabuse her of this problem? The one that knots her up but also tethers her to the planet. Byron Katie notwithstanding (Who would you be without your story?), Christy would be dead without her story. Even for a woman of faith, the Catholic story of heavenly reunion has not sufficed, because love is a flavor of mortal connection. This is how things, like Velveteen rabbits, start twitching their noses, and cell phones become homes away from home. So, we are working on saying goodbye to Mari’s things, sorting out rabbits from vegetation.
Our things define and describe the spaces in which we live and work as places. Things are also place holders and prompters. Like pearls on a strand, things help to chronologize our days, our months, even our family legacies. I move from the pantry where coffee sits, to coffee maker and faucet, to cabinet for a mug to the fridge for half and half, to the table where the computer awaits the tap dance of my hands and the phone sits a bit removed, just out of the circle of temptation. And I’ve opened the sliders so I can feel the air move as it fans the branches of the hundred-year-old White Pine, against which my kayak leans, reminding me of the benefits, for the external obliques, of circulating the torso in a figure eight pattern. And as the washer rinses towels and spins for the last time, sadness rinses and spins me too, as this signals my aloneness. My dear guests have recently left and, though I looked forward to my solo time, I miss them already, those who have taken their sandals and bathing suits and beach toys and books which had marked their presence these last few days. Dr. Christian Jarrett, in an article from The British Psychological Society, entitled, ‘The Psychology of Stuff and Things,’ quotes Karen Lollar, whose house burned down: “’My house is not “just a thing,”’ wrote Karen Lollar in 2010. ‘The house is not merely a possession or a structure of unfeeling walls. It is an extension of my physical body and my sense of self that reflects who I was, am, and want to be.’”
While the ‘thinghood,’ of my things is an extension of myself, it is also, necessarily, a distinguisher of otherness. I cannot, after all, acquire or consume myself. A toddler will think it funny if you ask, “Where’s Tommy’s nose?” as you look around under couch pillows, because by shear development he knows his nose is inherent to his being. The building blocks of myself exist in the world as influences, whether nutritional, intellectual, affectional, physical or moral. Objects in the world, living and inorganic, magnetize me like a compass, or repel me.
Some psychologists say we grow more attached to the things we anthropomorphize. But this imbuing of human characteristics to inorganic objects is the same process by which we relate to other persons who, in an important sense, are also objects in our world. The more we humanize other humans, the more curiosity, empathy, compassion, identification and gratitude can lubricate the stubborn viscosity that has prevented us from fully embracing our own tenuous humanity and ability to relate. On the other hand, the more we objectify other human beings, the easier it is to use, abuse and discard them.
As my mother lay dying in her bedroom, light through the blinds dappled the bed, the bookshelves, her dresser, catching occasionally on one of the delicate gold chains that spilled from a ceramic cup in which she kept them next to perfumes, all sitting on a hammered copper plate from Lithuania. It reminded me of Mico Kaufman, a sculptor in Tewksbury, who said to me, as he showed me his studio and work, “I love to see the presence of the hand.”
Hammers extend the hand’s power to attach materials, to build, to impress design. Phones extend our power to communicate plans, feelings, ideas. Planes give wings to the imagination’s delight in travel. Grandma’s samovar extends the memory of a family’s story across a continent and languages and through the ravages of war. Russell Belk, mentioned in many articles for his work on the meaning of things, says things are “extensions of the self.” But within and outside our own kinespheres, our extensions-of-self serve the purpose of anchoring us, as do bridges, across divides between our panoply of selves, and between ourselves and salient others.
Above the dermal layers of being, few objects seemed important to my mother but for the cheap digital clock which she demanded to see, that she might orient herself, in clock time, during these last few days without meals or errands or defined periods of sleeping and waking. Behind the blinds silhouettes of leaves trilled, and beyond the fading room our voices, mine and my sisters, and those of our mother’s few remaining friends rose and whispered and coughed and sighed and sobbed and quieted, as do voices among the living.
My mother pared down her belongings years before she died. Still, she had more than my sisters and I could use or treasure or shepherd into the future. My sister Lynne took on stewardship of the Grand Dame, the Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano my mother played her entire adult life, but inherited from my father’s mother, Fannie, who won it during the seventh annual student competition at the New England Conservatory of Music, on Saturday, May 13, 1916, at 2:30 PM in Jordan Hall. The program was Beethoven’s 1st movement of Sonata in C major, opus 53, Chopin’s Nocturne in F major, opus 15, no. 1, and Debussy’s ‘L’isle Joyeuse.’ According to the Boston based Mason & Hamlin website, they went from making organs to pianos in 1881. “With Mason & Hamlin’s innovations, use of only the finest materials and expert craftsmanship, its pianos were the world’s costliest to produce and widely accepted as the world’s finest.”
Julie Beck, in an Atlantic Monthly article from 12/10/14 quotes, “’Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users,’ write Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton in their 1981 book The Meaning of Things. ‘Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.’”
So what does it mean to do justice to an object so meticulously honed, and so momentously won for the artistry and craftsmanship of its musician, which has now survived all relevant owners in a family? To honor the piano, it must be played, lovingly and by someone whose connoisseurship recommends them. The piano must feel the presence of a devotee’s hands.
Like pimps, the piano resellers trivialized the worth of our older and less than furniture quality, but well-tended instrument. However, they would take it off our hands. My sister would not give up so easily, and the long tentacles of Craig’s List brought a sale close, and even closer, as successively, potential buyers tendered, not only their checkbooks but their stories. And the most closely aligned story won! Though there were several in the running: The woman who, widowed young, made it on her own with three daughters, one of which with musical inclination. We are four sisters whose mother was widowed at 42. There was the young man studying at the New England Conservatory for a Certificate in Composition and his parents would house the Grand Dame at their Cape Cod house, just down the street from my sister’s house. Synchronicity there. And then there was the Frenchman, a concert pianist who needed such a piano on which to prepare for his summer concert series. And betwixt and between, the Grand Dame’s piano tuner’s client, a semi-retired lawyer, who like our mother, played all the time. He had already driven fifty miles several times to play it, and, like our mother, had his own bucket list of compositions he wanted to accomplish before he died. He was selling his Steinway to have this Mason & Hamlin, and our mother’s piano tuner of 40 years would continue his service to the Grand Dame. Driven by divine discontent, he reminded me of my mother who, ever curious, ever ludic, would place her diminutive arthritic fingers on the keyboard and start a new piece, or play from ear some jazz, some ragtime, and a rock song or two.
I went to the home of a client in trouble for hoarding, and thus endangering her child. The abundance I saw held, somewhat obscured at first, both order as well as overwhelming love. Books, toys, clothing, art supplies, and every paper with a hand drawn doodle piled up, a growing hedge against forgetting even a single kiss. Every day is a keeper.
I keep the word ‘omphaloskepsis’ written on a piece of paper from a receipt in my main glasses case, housing the fourth iteration lenses for my deteriorating eyesight. It appeared ten years ago in a Balderdash game and I married it, Las Vegas style, love at first sight.
In a world of mass manufactured things, I recommend Gerard Bertrand’s Cote des Roses wine, in a bottle topped with a glass stopper and standing on an irregularly whorled rose petal bottom. However reiterative, perfume and flavor and color and design coalesce in perfect harmony. I sit here with my pale coral wine in a warm air that gently condenses the glass, a momentary lebenskünstler watching the water chuff at the shoreline while the wind chime dances its pentatonic dance and the kayak collects pine needles. These are vacation things. And next week work things will welcome me back, the plants thirsty, my dear clients ready to story and re-story.
Guest Saddle: What are your favorite things? What things are metaphors for who you are? What things connect you to others in your favorite circles? What things are you willing to do without? Without which things would you feel sad to live without?