None of it matters: the little wooden Shaker chicken on the windowsill given to me by Tara; the vintage bluebird salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table given to me by Margaret; the Scrabble board Asia pulled down from the shelf last night; the Grand Canyon rocks in another window sill collected by Craig; the Italian glass candle cup filled with green sand from St. Lawrence Island (candle cup from Molly Lou; sand from Sharon); the wooden block carved with winter trees I bought one Nutcracker Fair for my parents, rescued from a box in my sister’s basement last summer. Not even the bird, the nuthatch, hopping on the porch rail to sample seeds I scattered there this morning. (Up from writing or tearing open another cupboard or emptying another box, I wandered out onto the porch in sock-feet with the sack of sunflower seeds I found in a corner. Fresh, cold coastal Alaska air, 30-something degrees on my face, chill running up my feet to cool the woodstove heat and heat generated by wandering from room to room, pile to pile, from my body).
None of it matters. I know this. It’s part of the “don’t sweat the small stuff” philosophy. And yet something in me wants to touch each thing. Name it. Remember its origin. And then decide: in or out? The bird gives me no choice. It flies off to its life. But what about the asymmetrically shaped vessel my student Heather made in a pottery class and gave me as a present? Or the tapa cloth under the potted primroses (cloth from Laura and Ralph; primroses from Asia, to replace the dead plants in the house). Out with the dead plants! The dying ones too. I’m ashamed to say I was happy to see them go (along with the girdled moose-chewed apple trees). Out with unmatched mittens. Out with a pocket watch needing a new battery. Out with poly line stuffed in a corner of the entry, looped on one end by Neil, who intended (but didn’t) use it to kill our mean rooster Cinna-Man, years ago. But what about the paper snowflake hanging from the window lock, the one Jake made two winters back, sitting at this kitchen table during a big snow storm? And the candle his mom Asia and I made out of old candle wax melted in a tin can on top of the woodstove, during that same snowstorm?
I told my sister that my house looks like a wild animal was trapped inside it all winter and is now trying to tear its way out, looking for exit through cupboard doors, baskets, under desks, in closets. In an e-mail, I told my brother-in-law Jon that I feel like a pinball. “The pinball wizard has me bouncing off the kitchen cupboards to the desk piled with old phone books and mail, bouncing me then to the table to eat hummus and crackers, bouncing to the closet to stare at coats and wonder: why?” Why so may coats? Jon replied that he does that all the time; it’s good exercise. He told me to just go lie down. Easy to say. I’m a wild, trapped animal with a pinball wizard master.
It reminds me of the day I waited for the biopsy results last spring. The call, it turned out, would not come that day. But I carried my cell phone in my coat pocket. It was early spring, April 5. My sister dropped me off at the Brewster Store with the dog, Piper, while she ran errands. I tied Piper’s leash to a railing and walked up the steps and went inside for hot tea. It was spring, the trees budding, daffodils blooming, but the morning air still cold enough to make me want a warm paper cup in my hands as I sat in the sun. After I bought my tea, I wandered around the aisles. The Brewster Store is partly one of those old fashioned country everything shops, a throw-back to the old general store. You can buy pencils there. Rulers. Candy (selected from rows of glass jars). Magazines. It’s in a vintage white building with a big front porch. In summer it’s a tourist trap, and some shelves are crammed with Cape Cod regalia (chocolate covered, caramel-coated cranberries and nuts called “bog frogs;” ball caps with crabs embroidered on them; seafood cookbooks; Cape Cod mystery paperbacks; Cape Cod aprons and potholders and towels). But in the off-season, it’s a gathering place for locals. At the back, a long wooden table holds coffee and tea thermoses (no espresso machine). With your coffee or tea and a muffin, you can sit on the church benches out front in the sun, or during inclement weather, on wooden chairs around the woodstove inside. This is where guys gather to talk about weather, to bullshit (the previous spring’s incessant rain was still a topic that early, sunny spring), to procrastinate and segashuate, as Brer Rabbit would say. Not only retired guys; this is where you can go to find a carpenter, handyman, builder, plumber, artist, or dog sitter looking (or not looking) for work. Or to find my brother-in-law Jon, working on his computer in the sun out front.
The cell phone was an unexploded bomb in my coat pocket. I held the cup in two hands and let tea steam dampen my chin. I wandered to the shelves at the front of the store. These are filled with glassware, faut depression glass indigo blue sugar dishes, cream pitchers, butter dishes shaped like nests with hens roosting on top. There are colored glass plates, cups, candlesticks, salt and pepper shakers shaped like birds of indeterminate species. The light streamed through the window, through the objects. The objects transformed the display into a three-dimensional stained glass window of knickknacks, stuff, brick-a-brack, “dookie,” as Craig calls it. In a church of the ordinary, I stood and prayed. A few minutes later, I sat outside on one of the church pews, petted Piper, and pulled out my journal to write:
It’s warm, fully spring. The daffodils and forsythia are in bloom. Back in Alaska, on another planet, it still snows every day. A house sparrow forages on the cement near my feet, ordinary and perfect. Something in me has been shaken loose, certainty, taking the future, taking anything, for granted. I stared at the stuff in the store. It too is ordinary and perfect. I want to bow to every blessed thing I see, the things of this world. The blue mail box. The church bell. The chipped white paint on these church pews. They don’t mean a thing, and yet they stand there in front of me, clarified, miracles of the ordinary, of this particular world we live in. Even a desperately poor Haitian living in a shack fights to stay in this life, fights for the shack, for the dirt outside the door, the trees overhead. There are moments in the every day when we feel despair, like it would be okay to die (at least I have had those moments), but when death’s shuffling up the path, we turn our backs and hold tight to the smallest things. I hold tight to a world where cracks form in asphalt, where men grow beer bellies and wear ball caps to cover they bald spots. A world of coffee and laziness and collecting and forgetting.
I don’t know exactly what I’m doing inside my house, ransacking, nesting, purging, obsessing, or distracting myself. Maybe, just maybe, I’m praying. Not to God, but to each thing. Poet Mark Nepo says, "We ask the smallest items of everyday life to carry unbearable meaning for us." Bottle of Riga Black Balsam I brought back from Latvia in the kitchen window, what do you mean? Russian tea pot I bid on at a silent auction at Dance Camp, filled with yellow roses from Asia. Basket woven by my mother on top of the fridge holding my mother’s Christmas cookie cutters that haven’t cut a cookie in years. Dream catcher fashioned by my former oboe student Elyse. The song says there are no tears in heaven. The fat, black books say there are no things, either. So in this church that is the earth, I shed tears. I pull each object out of the cupboard (this morning, the spice jars). I listen to its story (even a spice jar has a story, lost or present, for instance, why fenugreek?), search for its meaning, then put it back on its shelf, or throw it away. Perhaps that is another way of saying, and there are many ways, Lord/Lady, give me this life of things, again and again and again.