The Thing Itself

Excerpt from The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity, Riverhead Books, 2008.

The tears of things

As Ovid knew long ago things contain the power not only to preserve warm memory, but to evoke misery too. Lacrimae rerum. The tears of things. When we put false hopes in objects, then the objects, broken or abandoned, take us straight back to the longing, the foolishness, the self-deceit. Even derelict and useless, things live on silently accumulating meaning. Not long ago I contemplated leaving my house of many years. “Nobody over fifty should move,” says the hero of Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air, and he may be right. In any event it was necessary to clean out the barn.

Come out and visit this building. It is a Museum of False Enthusiasms. How many pairs of cross country skis can a family reasonably own?—all of them now in disuse. The horse stall, never quite finished, though it all too briefly held a horse. Now that whole misadventure comes back, and I remember pounding the nails into the floor boards before the beast’s arrival, tiring my arm until it wouldn’t move. A revelation of weakness to my young self: a glimpse of mortality. And buying halters and curry brushes soon to be useless—there’s one over in the corner. And here, look at this bright blue bucket, a feeding bucket with a flat back so it can hang straight against a wall. Just a piece of plastic but it was given to me by my youngest daughter. How the heart rises in love, but it is love mixed with guilt. I disappointed her. The bucket was for the sheep we raised, but after a couple of seasons we lost too many lambs and I lost the will to care for them. The bucket, given in innocence, sits here an emblem of fecklessness.

And over here two wagon wheels, their spokes too rotten to preserve, taken from a relic I found in the woods at the edge of the field, where it had been drawn one last time and abandoned. How had its owner allowed it to slip into such disrepair? I know, all too well. Even the wheels stir rueful memories. I should have just left them on, to give someone else the pleasure I had in finding the ghostly wagon, slowly losing its integrity, making the imagination fill in the missing pieces.

From a post hangs a set of tractor chains. Hell to put them on. The last time I did was on a bitter, knuckle-skinning day in December and I was helped immeasurably by a young guy who was in love with a daughter of mine. Never let him know how much I appreciated it.

Hanging in the corner, a bizarre thing: a Swiss cowbell! Oh yes. Given to me by quite an attractive woman. What did she have in mind? We’ll never know. I should throw it out, but how really do you throw out a cow bell? Up in the barn loft—sap buckets, milk cans, broken chairs, and spavined tables. One of the tables threatens to dump to the floor an assortment of manual typewriters I once assembled. Folly, Folly. Here is an antique flour sifter—in God’s name, what am I going to do with this? And over in the corner I see the saddest thing, and not even mine. The huge yellow wings of a model airplane. It was built by the boy who helped me with the tractor chains. The boy is dead, as it happens, killed in a traffic accident. He was a better fellow than I gave him credit for and in some unspoken but real way I was cruel to him. Lord, get me out of here. I would like to be—where? In some place of perfect impersonality, in a business-class lounge at Heathrow, in a Sheraton Hotel room in Malaysia—in one of those places where you feel pleasantly deracinated, and where you think with warm simplicity of . . . home. Yet just now home is a place full of things that only remind me of my own insubstantiality. And for this moment these wretched, useless objects seem to be the realest things in my life.