Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Personal Inventory

Favorite Things, 2009

The other morning Deb M. shared a thought:

For years, I have collected mementos to remind me that I wasn't just alive, I lived. I looked at some this morn. Mission accomplished.”

I left a snarky remark (“Dear grasshopper….”) about the value of letting go of things.

Later that morning I was listening to an interview with artist James Rosenquist. Asked how he'd coped when his home, his studio and his print archives were destroyed in a fire, he didn’t hesitate for a moment:

“I miss my mother’s family scrapbook. And there was an 80’ long mural I’d just about finished for a client that I had to go back and do all over again. But the other stuff was just objects and things. After the fire I found I just didn’t care about things anymore. I’m not materialistic anymore. Losing everything can do that for you.”

Between the Rosenquist interview and Deb’s comment, I realized I was nowhere near as evolved as I thought I was about “objects and things.” There are all sorts of things I’ve collected to say, in so many words, that “I wasn’t just alive. I lived.”

I’ve written here about some of them before. Heck, in one corner of my office alone are:

  • Stones from Maine, Martha’s Vineyard, England’s Jurassic Coast, the Pacific Coast and Sedona, Arizona.
  • Paper cut-out models of the Radcliffe Camera and Sheldonian Theater at Oxford University.
  • A 1954 Picasso ceramic “Hen Subject.”
  • A model of the Gerrit Reitveld “Red and Blue Chair.”
  • A painting of the Edgartown lighthouse by Amanda Kavanagh.
  • Cards from my daughter.
  • A photograph I took in Richmond in 1971.
  • A miniature reproduction of an Ingo Maurer “Wing” lamp.

I know you’re not supposed to become so attached to things. Deathbed revelations frequently have to do with realizing that life wasn’t about things.

But each of these items has a story. Only a few—the painting, the Picasso hen—have much value beyond the sentimental. But I sure would feel lost without them.

I think this is also why I’m so drawn to photographing places instead of, say, fashion models or pets. Even when my photographs are of very small parts of big scenes, I realize I’m trying to say, “I was here, and looking at this picture enables me to find my way back there and remember some of what I saw and heard.”

I’m pretty obsessive about this, when you think of it. I get edgy if I’m traveling someplace that night be interesting and don’t have a camera with me. It’s as if without a photographic record the memory of having been there will slip away.

So in the end I have to admit I’m as much a sucker for things as the next person. I guess I’d better apologize to Deb for the snarky remark and wipe off those paper cut out models from Oxford. They’re getting pretty dusty.


  1. God, I'm the same. I sometimes feel bad that I am that way, but I don't have lots of expensive things, just lots of sentimental things. With each one, I think of people and events and parts of my past, and while I'm sure I'd remember them all without these items to remind me, I just enjoy being surrounded by them all. They're comforting to me. I thought about that a lot with the Haiti catastrophe, and wonder how I would deal with such a disaster. I fear not very well...

  2. From the visitors last weekend, I noticed that there were two responses to my decision to hold my own estate sale at what is, I hope, midlife: horror at the thought of losing cherished things and mementos, or a wistful desire to do the same. Right now, I feel both grateful for the joy the things brought during their time, and liberated not to have them anymore. And I am grateful to live in the electronic age, when I can take lots of photographs and never have to worry about storing prints and negatives. Flickr is a moveable feast! Thanks for stopping by!