by Madhu Kaza
These are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart.
–Virgil, The Aeneid
A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon at a friend's apartment while she held a moving sale. I went primarily to keep her company, and I spent hours in the room where she had neatly arrayed books, jewelry, film and camera equipment, exercise machines, clothes, pottery and various knick-knacks. Every sale was accompanied by the story of the object – how she had acquired it, what it meant to her, and what a great deal the customer was getting. The longer I stayed the more I could feel a tinge of sadness in the room, but her friends and neighbors lapped the stuff up, seemingly unaware of the melancholy. When one of my friend's neighbors invited me to visit her apartment upstairs, I left the sale for a while and walked into a large, bright, cluttered apartment. I sat at a dining room table strewn with books, wires, a computer, cookie cutters, takeout containers and piles of papers and thought, what a relief to be in the middle of things. What I meant was: what a relief not to be at the beginning or the end. The room was a mess but the objects carried no self-consciousness. They were at home and settled into the ongoing-ness of days.
I wrote previously about things, but I hadn't really touched upon their sadness, which is to say our sadness towards them. Recently, though, I've been thinking about the Japanese idea of “mono no aware” or “the pathos of things.” The sensitivity to impermanence at the heart of mono no aware is exemplified in this extract from the poet Kenko's 14th century “Essays in Idleness”:
When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past. After the others have gone to bed, I pass the time on a long autumn's night by putting in order whatever belongings are at hand. As I tear up scraps of old correspondence I should prefer not to leave behind, I sometimes find among them samples of the calligraphy of a friend who has died, or pictures he drew for his own amusement, and I feel exactly as I did at the time. Even with letters written by friends who are still alive I try, when it has been long since we met, to remember the circumstances, the year. What a moving experience that is! It is sad to think that a man's familiar possessions, indifferent to his death, should remain unaltered long after he is gone.
Because we invest our belongings with memories they inhabit time with us in peculiar ways. They become our companions through life and when we lose them or give them away we feel bereft not merely of the object, but of some span in our own lives that they marked.
That we outlast things can be as unsettling as Kenko's recognition that things outlast us. When we no longer have use or space for special objects that we once housed, we are reminded of the changing shapes our lives, and of mortality. I feel the sadness of things acutely when my mother speaks of whittling away her possessions in preparation for a move from a large suburban house to a smaller condo. She will dispose of most of her saris and many of the objects – an antique bed, paintings, rugs, large brass vessels – that she carefully brought over from India in the last thirty years. Among these are things that I love that do not fit the shape of my own life in a small New York City apartment. But I hate for her to let them go. It's a reminder that she's no longer in the middle of things, in the middle of life, but ever so gently anticipating the end. And that continuity is not always possible.
In Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas' beautiful film about objects and inheritance, three siblings must decide the fate of their mother's house and her belongings, including a valuable collection of art, after her death. Because the two younger siblings live abroad and need money, and because they had sometimes felt oppressed by their mother's need to preserve inherited objects, they are interested in selling the house and the art. The eldest son Frédéric, though, wishes to keep the house, which he imagines they can all visit from time to time. He hopes that by keeping the house intact, by leaving the art on the walls and retaining his mother's housekeeper, he can maintain continuity with his childhood and pass on elements of that childhood to the next generation. However, when he shows his children two cherished paintings by Corot that will be sold, the children show little interest. “It's ok, but it's not what I really like,” says one child. “It's from another time,” says the other. Frédéric has held on to the idea that one life can seamlessly fold itself into successive lives, but he is forced to confront the rupture of loss more deeply.
One day as my mother spoke to me about her own belongings, I made a surprising proposal to her. I asked her if she would consider melting down a gold necklace that she had bought more than twenty-five years ago, so that I could extract the gold to get a newer, simpler piece of jewelry made. The necklace in question is not an heirloom – my mother inherited almost nothing – but as an Indian daughter I had always been taught that gold jewelry is inalienable property. All of my childhood I was taught that I was never, ever to sell my mother's jewelry. It would be my inheritance and I would pass it down to my own children. So it was sacrilege to speak of melting the piece. But it is a heavy, traditional South Indian necklace, the kind that's meant to be worn with beautiful but heavy Kanchipattu saris, which we don't really wear anymore even at weddings, preferring instead lighter silks with more fluid drapes. I can't imagine ever wearing the necklace. It's ok, but it's not practical and not what I really like; it's from another time and place.
When I think of melting my mother's gold necklace, I feel a sense of loss for some idea of a future that I had when I was young. Back then I imagined that the necklace would easily slip into my life, that my life would be somehow gracefully honor and preserve everything that belonged to my mother. It's a ridiculously naïve notion, but it served for a while as a comforting hedge against loss. I know that there will be things that I won't want to keep when my mother is gone, and there will be things I'll want to keep and can't. In the meantime my mother has provisionally agreed to melt the necklace. I am amazed at her willingness to let go. I'm excited, too, that I can get something made from her necklace while she is still alive, something that I can wear and enjoy in my own life. The idea of such a transformation feels like magic, like a trick played on time. It's not without its costs. And, of course, the new necklace will not escape a melancholy future of its own. But for a while, this little bit of alchemy might alter the gold, so that rather than being at the end, it's back in the middle of things.