In a massive storm on the Eastern Seaboard in the 1800s, the deadliest and most destructive until Hurricane Sandy hit last year, residents of one seaside community reported watching one house lifted right off its foundations by the storm surge. The house then sailed back out on the waves, fully intact and upright, until it crossed out of sight on the horizon. It was never seen again, but the owner (so the story goes) found precisely one china plate from her mother’s heirloom set in the sand two miles down the beach in the days after the storm.
It’s very trendy to say that one could really do without every thing they own. We downsize, we donate, we do with less, and we feel very virtuous about it. “Stuff just weighs you down,” we say, and we’re not wrong. Objects are attachments that keep us from being fully mobile, fully free.
I’d be lying if I said I’d never contemplated a merry blaze as I cleaned up one more piece of homework, one more sock, one more crayon. We have things in a storage unit back in Wisconsin that we haven’t seen since we moved almost three years ago, and I can’t honestly say I’ve missed many of them. And there’s certainly more in this apartment than we truly need; the difficulty actually comes with disposing of much of it–where can it go, if recycling isn’t possible when reducing, but contributing stuffed animals and kitchen implements to a landfill?
I’ve even trained myself out of several things I thought I could never do without. I used to answer the “What would you save in a fire?” question quickly: “My photos.” Never mind that they took up four heavy crates, I had plans as early as high school for how to throw them out onto the lawn before seeking refuge myself. Now, I’m okay with digital files instead of physical prints. I still have files upon files of papers from my grad school and teaching days, but much like my photos, if I could get them all scanned and searchable, it would be a joy to cart them to the recycling center. And I’m even adjusting to not owning a physical object that contains my music and makes it portable. I might even believe in The Cloud someday.
But I have a collection of precious objects that I’m not willing to part with. They come from creators and givers who’ve provided years of joy and inspiration. Many of them are signed books or CDs, inscribed with my name and personal messages. I’ve had people in line tell me that I was an idiot for asking for personalized signatures–“It’s worthless now!” they said as they saw my name on it.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
Relics are common in every world religion, but they play a unique role in Christian belief. Because Jesus’ death and resurrection are the primary incidents of divine intervention at the core of the faith, it was believed that saints who chose to die for their faith rather than save themselves through abjuration were touched by God at the moment of their deaths as well. This transformed the graveyards of martyrs from unclean and unlucky places into the homes of the divinely touched dead. The celebration and white clothes of early Christian mourners, as they paid homage in the unsafe burial grounds outside city walls, made ancient pagans very uncomfortable, yet another reason they rejected the Jesus cult for so long.
Ancient people also believed that the location of a past miracle actually raised the chances of another miracle occurring in the same place, rather than our modern notions of lightning never striking the same place twice. If death is the ultimate miracle, than the remains of the dead become the ultimate location for a potential repeat. And the fact that those remains made that miraculous location physically portable was just the icing on the morbid cake. If you could carry an object with you that made you more likely to have a personal experience with God, it’d be hard to pass that up.
I’m certainly not claiming that any of the objects that mean so much to me are divine connections, but they do serve as concrete links to to a moment of human contact I shared with someone I love and admire. Friday night, Darling Husband and I went on a date to see a radio show taping featuring comic Paula Poundstone and musician Robyn Hitchcock (of The Soft Boys and the Egyptians fame). Robyn’s music was part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, and Paula’s comedy was one of the earliest bonding experiences with the DH after he moved to the States 16 years ago. I had stuffed my two favorite CDs and a Pretty Good Joke Book from Prairie Home Companion into my tiny purse, on the off chance that we got to meet them, but after waiting for more than a half-hour after the show, it seemed less likely. I bugged one of the staff members, explained how one of the CDs was an incredibly rare bootleg of a concert booked under a different name. They said Paula was probably taking off, but Robyn would be out in a bit.
So when both came out the door, I sort of blanked. I totally forgot about the Joke Book, and started telling her about how the DH and I met, and the funny lines that have become in-jokes between us. She seemed genuinely pleased, thanked us for the kind story, and happily signed our show program to the both of us. With Robyn, I had a whole extended conversation about the bootleg, and the cover art of the other CD which had been modified in the second pressing, and as random and delightful a variety of subjects as I would hope from the godfather of surreal UK proto-punk and alt-pop. I explained how my boys enjoyed when I sang one of his songs to them, and he scrutinized the picture of them I showed him. He asked their names, and took a funny picture with me.
By the time we left the theater, I was shaking and teary at how kind and engaged both stars were to an obviously flustered mega-fan. And I was holding onto two more precious relics. They’ll never show up on eBay or any other fan site for sale; their meaning is entirely personal. But whenever I touch them and look at the inscriptions, they collapse the time between when those marks were made and when I’ll be in the future, bringing the joy and miracle of human contact fully back into the material present.
People are right that I don’t need objects or photos to remember important moments. There’s no doubt I’ll remember that moment any less clearly in 20 years than what I had for breakfast the morning before. My autistic memory is indelible and visual, so it’s even less trouble for me than for many people to pull up the images and conversations that left deep impressions. But my brain is also highly sensitive to sensory memory, so the touch of a CD jewel box, or the sound of a mixtape, or a porcelain statue, or the silky pages of a graphic novel evoke an even stronger sense of time and place.
These precious objects perform the miracle of bringing past joy into the present; that magic is wrought through the application of a Sharpie and a moment of human interaction. And as my collection of relics grows, I know that I could no more part with these attachments than with the experiences that created them.