Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Secret Life of Things

It’s been a while since I wrote - I was away with a group of old friends helping to clean out the family home of another recently dead old friend. The two of us who were executors only had one week, and the task was overwhelming. The parents - along with our recent friend their son - were artists, and there was - on top of a lifetime of regular stuff - a serious collection of art and art supplies. Three of the canvases were designated for a museum, but the rest was to be divied up among friends and then gone through and sorted out for either a secure storage area for remaining friends, or to charity, or to an estate agent. My job was the artwork - and it was just everywhere. Framed works were hung and piled everywhere upstairs and in the basement, and also in an enormous flat filing cabinet of perhaps twelve very large drawers. This was filled with work dating back to the parent’s art school days and early life work. As an example, one drawer alone held ten or so oil portraits - unframed and stacked one on the next. They were just lovely, of complete strangers to me, but fine work that I couldn’t imagine throwing away. There was a similar stack of watercolors - really very, very nice art. Fortunately, as to these pieces, I was able to reason with the estate agent, proposing that if he framed and matted them he could sell them, since they were good art. He seemed to agree - I hope so. And I swear the art supplies (destined for a local school classroom) were spawning in the walls.

And the art was just a patch on the contents of the house - furniture, appliances, tableware, dishes, electronics, books, clothes, rugs, bedding, toiltries, a pantry full of food, on and on. The normal destinations for this sort of thing were not available - the house was in the Hamptons on Long Island and the several charitable organizations contacted “did not go to that zip code”. Seven of us worked dawn to dusk packing and finding destinations - but in the meantime, we talked quite a bit about the nature of things and the laws which govern their existence.

My conviction of many years is that there are invisible eddies and currents along which the secret life of things is conducted - having not much to do with what we humans think of as control over the situation. Here is an example: many years ago I was walking through a Cambridge (MA) residential neighborhood, and I found a right hand sheepskin mitten. My size. I picked it up, since it was in great shape. A week later, I was walking on the downtown Boston waterfront, and found a left hand sheepskin mitten. My size. So now I had a set which was warm and my favorite and I used them happily for several years together with a lovely wool knit cap from Scotland. The mittens were always stored in the cap when not in use and put in the exact same place. One day all three of them simply left - no forwarding address. I didn’t lose them - they left - for whatever reasons govern the actions of things. The above is but one personal example of this phenomenon - I have many more.

And when it comes to a houseful of things, it is interesting to watch both how their accumulation and dispersal take place. Regarding dispersal - some seemed to leave with reluctance (it took many tries to get them out the door), and others simply flew out, all happy about the next chapter. You really have to wonder who is in charge - all of us were groaning under the burden of so many things and kept observing how as SOON as we got home we would begin cleaning out our own stuff since it was just hell to visit on our heirs/agents/whoever this task of dealing with so many objects. Yet as far as accumulation goes they keep coming into our lives of their own accord - I don’t even SHOP for pete’s sakes and my house is crammed. It is much harder to keep them out than let them in - don't you think?

And let’s not even go there about the barns......

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