December 2, 2015
What lasts? Is there anything you’ve made in your life that will still be here 150 years from now? Is there anything on your shelves that will be tagged and numbered and kept in a warehouse. . . ?
— Anthony Doerr, b. 1973
American fiction writer and essayist
from “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul”
essay originally in Granta, included in Best American Essays 2015
Reading and writing are the mainstays of my life, my profession now. When I was a teacher, classroom activities took up a good deal of my energy. I was in the school building nearly eight hours every day. I prepared lessons and taught them, counseled young writers, assigned them tasks, and evaluated them. I had to stay current, lest paperwork become an impenetrable thicket and the syllabus not worked through.
I have those hours now for pursuing my own writing, and the reading that supports and generates it. I lost momentum this fall, straying from the plans I was so enthusiastic about in August. Ron’s illness, of course, is the main reason. Like my teaching duties, the details of appointments for procedures and consultations must be attended to, with some precision, or the whole process fails. Though I have covered nearly a hundred handwritten pages in my journal in the last six weeks, none of it has addressed formally the three projects I sought to complete by the beginning of March. In all of November I read one book-length memoir and one short story. And truth to tell, I didn’t actually read the book, I listened to it on CD in the car.
And so, not for the first time, I looked at the wreckage of my Fall Term (I still use the language of the academic calendar), drew a line, and began again. For December, read and write nonfiction. One piece a day in Best American Essays takes us almost through the month.
Yesterday I read Justin Cronin’s narrative of a family crisis and how the members’ spiritual lives changed, or did not, in its aftermath. Today it was Anthony Doerr’s expository piece about the history of a Boise, Idaho landmark.
In “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul,” Doerr imagines the details of the lives of John and Mary O’Farrell who, in 1863, built and inhabited the first family home in Boise. At the Idaho State Historical Museum, Doerr examines four objects — a miner’s pick, a metal spike called a miner’s candlestick, a tin lantern, and a wooden candlestick painted white and gold — that belonged to and were used by the O’Farrells. He asks the questions in the quotation above.
I spent some time today wondering what objects in my life now will still be here in 150 years. I have a cedar chest that dates from the early days of my grandparents’ marriage in 1901. It is in need of repair. I have the Story and Clark console piano my parents bought for me in 1948 (I was one year old). It needs to be tuned and has a G two octaves below middle C that sticks. Of things I actually made, I have a dishtowel upon which I embroidered a stamped design in about 1956. With care, those objects have a few more years left in them
Doerr continues: “What does not last, if they are not retold, are the stories. Stories need to be resurrected, revivified, reimagined; otherwise they get bundled with us into our graves: a hundred thousand of them going into the ground every hour.”
I didn’t have the time — more accurately, didn’t take nor make the time — today to write the stories of any of the objects I thought of. All I did was make a tentative list of only three of them. That list existed only in my mind until I began this piece, and would have disappeared utterly with tomorrow’s new layer of things to think about if I had not committed it to writing here.
Much of my work over my years of Holidailies participation has been in the revivifying and reimagining of the stories of objects and persons and events that constitute my Yuletide season memories. As so many busy newspaper columnists do, I repost a lot this time of year, my own personal Yes, Virginias. I won’t turn away from that entirely this year (there has to be the annual Dragnet Christmas Episode Celebration). But I think it’s time to write new stories about old objects.