Object Permanence

I am descendant from Eastern European Jewish gypsies. In my mind's eye, my ancestors travelled from town to town selling their wares, mostly tea and spices, and performing impromptu theatre wherever they turned in. They took to the well-beaten paths with their donkeys and carts. They saw the beauty and prosperity in the land on which they travelled; the sweeping plains, the green forests, the frosted winters, the pollen-filled springs. They needed nothing more than each other and their ingenuity to make each day memorable. The romantic idealisation of their lives most probably falls a long way from the truth. And yet, generations on, my family has persisted with the one essential trait of our kin. We move.

Perception is a funny thing. As infants, we struggle to believe an object exists when it is no longer in front of us. A toy leaves the room and ceases to be. It's hard to miss something that doesn't exist anymore. As we grow older, we learn that the caregiver who has left the room is still somewhere and will respond to loud cries. We learn that missing teddies can sometimes come back with searching. We learn that grandma is still behind those peek-a-boo hands. The more value we ascribe to these objects and people, the more we miss them.

By the time we're mostly grown, throwing a tantrum when something goes missing works much less well. Search though we may, the object may never come back. Turn the house upside down and that favourite sweater's location may still be a mystery. In my case, those scrub shoes may never turn up again. We take simple objects and ascribe to them more than a material value. Those shoes were a gift from my parents. They took me through my orthopaedic trauma electives overseas. They walked the hallowed, fluorescently-lit halls of the hospital at 0200 when I was on-call with one of the residents. They were broken in with plenty of bodily-fluid exposure intra-operatively. They were a sign that I was on the road to a future I so valued. And now they're gone. They were just a pair of shoes and yet losing them feels like losing a small part of myself. The fact that I could buy new ones is inconsequential.

Sentimentality is my parents' garage. There are boxes upon boxes of pre-loved, now never-used items cluttering up the space between the cars. There are generations of memories within those uninsulated brick walls. Old computers sit next to our childhood roller-skates and scores of textbooks from primary school. Boxes of my grandparents' linen are squeezed up against old toys and the dusty decoration box that comes out each December. I used to wave wildly at all of this and ask why we didn't sell it at a garage sale. We never use it. It is superfluous. It takes up space. Pointing at each labelled box and questioning my parents, I would be met by a variety of excuses as to why we still needed them. There will be a computer museum; someone might need the linen; one day you and your brother will have children who can use those toys. Ultimately, I think, all of those material objects have meaning. They watched us grow up. They made us.

And yet. This year I have been travelling all over. I've worked in at least seven different hospitals. I've filled my car or my suitcase with the bare essentials - work clothes, gym gear, and toiletries. I've hardly worn "real" clothes all year, mostly because they've been safely in my Sydney home while I've been elsewhere. And I've hardly missed anything. Now that it's getting cold, my feet have been yearning for slippers. But for the most part, I feel like an infant in the sense that those objects ceased to exist when I moved away from them.

Most of these things don't make me happy. Clothes are useful for avoiding the cold or protecting my skin from the harsh rays of the sun (or, more likely, whichever undesirable bodily fluid is most likely to fly my way at work). Pots and pans make for easy cooking. But the rest of our stuff? It just (literally) solidifies our memories. By moving away from the things that physically hold me down, I've been able to explore different aspects of the world unhindered. Unencumbered by the weight of memories. Free to hold small parts of the world in my hands.

We chain ourselves to places. We search for permanence in a world that promises no security. We find meaning in materials because we trust that they will keep existing tomorrow. And yet. And yet there is no guarantee. My best friend's house went up in flames last year and with it many of her treasured possessions. She has fewer things now; she lost plenty of objects with sentimental value. But her people and her memories persist. In the face of great adversity, we continue. We pick ourselves up. We remember and we fight another day. We convince ourselves that these things that we hold so dear will be around tomorrow and yet that trust is paper thin.

We restrain ourselves with these objects. And yet. There is nothing permanent about life. Our one constant is fluidity. It is constantly changing. It ebbs and flows as if a river. We all take our ingenuity on the road to the next town. We ride our modern donkeys. And we find joy in those around us.


Lance Abel said…
I would say "your writing is excellent and you could be a writer in another life" but I think you may well have an opportunity at some point to do it.
Lol we have had the garage sale computer museum discussion and other similar ones many times and I do struggle with the same tension between hoarding instinct and exploring and clearing instinct. Heaviness at least now is quantified as storage cost, not only do I have my old computers and magazines, me and my dad have items belonging to grampa too.
Some of these objects are the only ways to access some memories at all and others are just things that are not yet "processed", but it's hard to say which matter.
Some are bad memories but can still be important to identity and some may matter to my kids without them mastering to me. These objects seem like options, and each time I move a small percentage of them go.

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