When I was on holiday, my mother had the dog put down. Arthritis in her back leg made it difficult for her to stand up, though I would still like to have been told beforehand. But it might have affected me even more that when I was at University, my parents moved, and without telling me my mother took all the books I had left at home to a second-hand bookshop. I told Gregor, and he was shocked: “Sixty Doctor Who books! Sixty!” Gregor had got cable TV because it was showing old Doctor Who each night, had a notebook with the names of the actors writers and directors of each serial, and was busking to pay off his overdraft at £5 a time, never knowing where his next Doctor Who book was coming from.
One needs to practise with small losses.
What do your possessions say about you? I was proud of my hi-fi, a Mission amplifier and speakers, and Marantz CD player, and my TV, small and black-and-white, which all proclaimed that I am a cultured and educated person, at least in my own mind. That might be why I keep so many books. I am pleased to have read On Becoming a Person, it was life-changing, but I won’t read it through again, and I have not even dipped into it for years. On the other hand, a friend recognised its distinctive spine and we discussed it.
Through and through th’ inspir’d leaves,
Ye maggots, make your windings;
But O respect his lordship’s taste,
And spare his golden bindings!
But books do not need golden bindings to show off taste.
You might think this net-book my most treasured possession, the time I spend with it, but eventually I will replace it, and chuck it away happily. It is a tool. I value it for what it lets me do, rather than for the thing itself. Only a few books are tools. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is more reliable than the Internet, and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary-
There’s something I can prize in a possession, I who thought myself too practical, Roundhead, rational to relate emotionally to things, and at the same time too Spiritual to idolise them.
At £70 in the Nineties, it involved some sacrifice to get it. It is not beautiful exactly, but imposing on the bookshelf, two volumes 11¼x5¼”. It has had practical use at least monthly, hundreds of times since I bought it. And it does say something about me, to anyone who might find out something about me from looking at my bookshelves.
I am proud of my quirks, and have an 18th century edition of Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity, still the pre-eminent work of Quaker theology. I could not afford a 17th century edition. Rufus Jones’ histories, and my 19th century Books of Discipline, alongside recent Swarthmore Lectures, give a definite message to other Quakers. But generally, books are disposable. I value the experience of reading them, but afterwards there are others to read; the message a visitor gets from one s/he might get from another, and after, they are so much dead weight, to carry around if I move. Better to have an e-file.
There is the piano. I would not be without it, but do not play it much. However, what I value is the experience, not the object- if I look with pleasure on my bicycle in the hall it is because I imagine riding it.
I have mementoes. That picture of a camel by the Sphinx-
-will it scan? Yes. There it is. The colour is not right, and I did not take it out of its frame-
I remember where it hung, in my grandparent’s house, but it is not, usually, a madeleine for me. I do not find myself back, there, looking at it. Keeping it may be a way of honouring them, but perhaps it is more that throwing it away or selling it would dishonour them, or something. It is the same with my mother’s silver teapots. I have found out what EPNS stands for, but they were created to be valued. They have the look of something designed to be looked at, but I don’t quite get it, and I don’t keep them polished, they tarnish too quickly.
These family bonds are something to free myself of, at the same time as something to venerate. Something which matures in my mind as I mature, part of me which does not limit or define me. Those things, the symbols, relate to them somehow, and I need not know precisely how. The photograph from my parents’ wedding reception, though- as I journeyed from dependency to loathing and resentment of them, then back to Love, it was a tool for me, to see them at their brightest and happiest, and it touches me when I look at it.
There are other things, which have meant so much to me at one time, and after, not. The full-fed beast shall kick the empty pail. I went to see the psychiatrist in London, and bought a silver bangle. I was moving forward towards transition. This was something I wanted to symbolise and celebrate. That bangle became invested with all the meaning of my coming liberation. Then it got a bit battered, and vanished in a burglary. The symbol loses meaning when reality comes; it was a cup of water in a desert, and now I have high-pressure taps in a temperate land. I can invest a thing with meaning, then it has that meaning for me. Then I need that meaning less, and the echo of it dwindles, and I think Oh! Yes, that. But I could not throw away this old battered plastic key-fob, the first gift from my greatest friend.
I have things which I bought for their beauty. Those crystal wineglasses which I got in my first home make a wonderful rich sound if I flick them. I still get pleasure from them, though it has changed as I have changed. Beauty varies. I have a trilobite embedded in slate, 450m years old. I love the detail of its segments, but it symbolises for me three centuries of effort to wrest meaning from such perplexing stone, and 450m years of coincidence, that it still exists.
And I have a copy of Andrei Rublev’s Angels at Mamre. It is hand made with gold leaf on aged wood on Mount Athos, so it is a record of centuries of self-sacrifice and reverence. So I must treat it with respect. In a sense, though, it is just a thing, and if I no longer owned it for some reason it would be no great loss for me. That practice in loss has freed me from some pain. The icon is never of greater value to me than when someone notices it and comments on its beauty. Like the net-book, it is a tool, to make a connection, to another person or to God. The connection matters. The tools are replaceable.
What of The Rake’s Progress? There it was on the wall of The Foundling Hospital in London, and people came up close to it to examine it, for it is an art-work to hold in your hands and appreciate each tiny detail, ideally over a period of months. But if I owned it myself, and showed it only to visiting friends it would be wasted. It is too great for me. It deserves to be seen, by all the people who can gain from seeing it. I felt excitement in the gallery which I might not feel, if it were on my wall. There is no need to possess a thing to treasure it and take delight from it.
I treasure, too, the Quaker meeting house; but it would be almost nothing but for the people who meet there. And if I moved, there would be another meeting house, and even another community of people. This is a world of abundance, beauty and wonder, none of which needs be possessed.