My great grandfather spent his entire life on vacation, converting the fruits of the labors of my industrialist ancestors into adventures and trinkets. He loved cars and cameras and the latest technology, and had many wonderful things, and he also had a fondness for kitschy figurines and collectibles from the Franklin Mint. (Depending on your age, you may remember The Franklin Mint from the back of the Sunday newspaper magazines, hawking limited edition coins and china plates with woodland creatures painted on them. The small print contained the following disclaimer: “Some items go up in value. Others go down.” I assure you this is true.)
My grandmother, his daughter, also a woman of leisure, died last year, leaving a collection of stunning works of art, as well as items ordered from late night TV. Jesus, looking down from Rembrandt’s “La Petite Tomb,” could gaze beyond his flock and see self-stirring coffee mugs and miracle slippers. Should Joseph Conrad pause for a moment from reflections on the darkness in our hearts, he could turn from his portrait to check the time on clocks that chimed electronic fascimiles of bird songs on the hour.
I have a very complicated relationship to “stuff.”
One thing that my grandmother prized highly, and kept in the safe deposit box, was her jewelry collection, which included many irreplaceable, inherited pieces. There were gifts and purchases collected everywhere from the bon tons of New York City’s heyday to exotic foreign bazaars, dating from back when the world was much, much bigger, and its bazaars much, much more exotic and foreign. She would go to the bank to get the box to select a piece of jewelry for an occasion, and then take it back when she was done.
But as a wealthy widow in the early stages of failing health, she was also a target of nefarious operators, and somewhere in the shuffle of home aid agencies and housecleaners, the box of jewelry disappeared. She could be untidy, (to understate things somewhat), and we assumed for a long time that it had just been misplaced. Now she is gone and the house has been cleared and cleaned, and it’s obvious that the contents of that precious case have been happily laundered through the carrion-scented fingers of fencers and reprobates. I don’t know whether the pieces were documented or insured, but ebay doesn’t, either.
This brings me to the story of a hat.
A very handsome hat, and a fairly expensive one, purchased at a western wear store in Tennessee, for my 12 year old son.
My son is a hat guy. He wears hats, and he has his own definite style, so when he tried on this hat and it looked made for him, and he really, really wanted it, we agreed to buy it for him, on the condition that he take good care of it and keep close track of it.
Which he did, for about a month.
My kids are country kids; they don’t have it in their brains that you can’t just put stuff down and walk away from it in a city, and find it later. So when I left him with some friends in Boston for the afternoon and he was chasing pigeons, he didn’t think anything of setting aside his fancy hat on some random curb and forgetting all about it. By the time we realized what had happened, it had been a week, and there was certainly no retrieving it. I hope somebody took it, and that it didn’t just get run over by a bus and end up in a gutter somewhere.
I experienced real anger, and real grief. It felt odd; why was this so upsetting to me? After all, the hat is replaceable, and the cost, while high for a child’s accessory, was not prohibitive.
I remember when John had my engagement ring made from the diamonds in his late grandmother’s ring. There were two extras, tiny ones, that didn’t fit in the design, and he left the jeweler with them in his pocket, only to have them disappear – most likely they were stolen by someone who knew what to look for in the eyes of a dazed fiance-to-be stepping onto the sidewalk in a town that is normally so safe and quiet you can leave your wallet on a park bench. Monetarily, they weren’t worth much, but there was a poignancy in that loss.
And I remember when my mother let me take her copy of Don Marquis’ “Archy and Mehitabel” away to prep school, admonishing me not to lose the typewritten letter to her from the author himself in response to her fan mail, which I then completely and utterly lost without any idea how (it has later come to me that it was most likely stolen as a prank, because I was proud of it, and we weren’t allowed to lock our doors, and high school girls are cruel to each other in ways that put CIA masters of manipulation to shame).
I could go on and on. I’ve written in this space before about the priceless lesson in impermanence that is the loss of special and sacred things.
What does it mean that one thing is “irreplaceable” and another is not?
The day that my son lost his hat, I received some terrible and devastating news; the kind of news it’s difficult to find a home for in your heart. A dear friend had lost her 27 year old son. As I grappled to come to terms with how the world could be so unfair, I had a curious thought about the hat. Had my heart attached this intensity of emotion to something so inconsequential as a result of the inability to fathom a loss so unimaginable?
And I felt real regret, too; was I a fool for having bought something so fancy for a child, had I known somewhere inside myself that it was a mistake? Perhaps it is better to never love anything that can be lost; would it be better that one’s material possessions hold no value? Is true freedom the path of the ascetic on the mountain top, attached to nothing and no one, seeing only the transience of each present moment? Or, conversely, holding anything I cherish so tightly that I delude myself I can keep it from ever slipping from my grasp?
Around me, right now, many are weeping. I am talking to people who aren’t allowed to see their grandchildren, who have been excommunicated from their families absolutely, who have been cut off by their friends, who have been cast out of their former communities. In a world full of real death and real devastation, living, breathing human beings are choosing to treat others among them as dead. Out of fear, out of anger, out of cognitive dissonance? I don’t know anymore, but there are businesses and individuals all around me me right now who proudly proclaim that their hearts are hardened against anyone who has made a different choice than they, and nothing is more important to them than the rigidity of that truth. I cannot fix it, and I wouldn’t try. If someone has calcified their own heart to stone, they’ve picked a heavier burden for themselves than any I could cast upon them.
But that will not stop me from loving. It will not stop me from living. It will not stop me from experiencing the joy of seeing a child with a beautiful new hat, even if that hat can be lost. The joy lives in that moment forever.
It will not stop me from holding in my arms those who may leave me someday, or those who almost certainly will.
I will commit my heart wholly to those whose absence will feel an unbearable, sucking vacuum pressed to my lungs.
Because none of it was ever replaceable. It all passes away in its moment of arising. And yet, for that moment, all of it is real. To love without clinging, to mourn without breaking; this is the day that for us is made. We may rejoice and be glad in it. It is here, and gone forever, and eternal.
For the works of your heart, I come begging, hat in my hand. These items go up in value.