The Weight of Material Things
Sun clutters the floor. Still, no words.
My objects have not yet bent their bodies to the shape of this new space. Opened boxes, my senses strewn between misplaced kitchen items, paintings leaned against the wall. I draw back, attuned to the stillness they cast. Not yet coherent, not yet speaking a story about the humans who inhabit them (speaking only themselves).
In my palm, a necklace strung with copper beads. How weighty is an object, a thought threads through me. Though perhaps not all objects carry equal weight. In the box next to me, a plastic cup coughs all accumulated light, save the color blue. I tilt it towards my face. It weighs something— toddlerhood, safety, the possibility of containing— but the manufactured plastic deflects the human gaze, back into interior meanings.
I unfold the other palm. Not so this necklace, which breathes its own air. Jade stones, jasper, a gold flecked Buddhist prayer bead nestled on a string of tiny copper beads.
A few months ago, I saw it from across the room: love at first sight. George had brought me back to a local shop to show me, "I knew it was your style," he beamed.
I've never been interested in fashion or jewelry, but sometimes I wonder if I can blame the dullness of our affordable mass-produced fast fashion, paired with an ascetic sort of guilt for extravagant purchases. I walk into clothing stores and recoil at most everything I see.
What am I looking for? I’m not sure, but this necklace has it: vitality, brilliance, essence. I don't need it, so I bought it for want, letting it press a promise into my palm.
What does it mean to want? Desire is, unexpectedly, a rejection of the body. In branching into wantings, we want to rip space from its bloody roots, to seize time by its flesh-stinking body. Not here, desire says, but there, burrowed into that body, engulfed in that scent. Not this, the shard of hunger, but that, the immanent fullness. Not this, the girl across the room, seeing a glinting necklace, but that, the girl who wears such a necklace, possessed of an undimmed vitality. Yes, desire is a wanting to be anywhere but here, to belong to anyone but you.
Fixed and bulky, the now-embordered body refuses to be moved. First the necklace, then what? My body stumbles forward, reaching into a future I cannot meet. The moment the future is met, another need poses itself like a question. Don't you also need this opportunity? This state of being? This object? This person?
While reading Harry Potter to my daughter, Harry stumbled into the Mirror of Erised. Look in the mirror, and you will see the desire that drives you (but don't look too hard, or you may never recover from the fantasy). That jolted me alert for a moment, so I closed my eyes mid-page, wondering what I would see. Forms came and forms went, leaving only a white hot blaze behind my shoulders. I would see nothing but this: the glaring absence of everything, the growling of animal hunger.
This is the heart of desire: the emptiness that knows nothing but the wail of want. Wanting to be anything other than me. Anywhere but here. Feeling nothing but anything other.
Everything desired is an object, even another human. Love is an opening onto the mystery of the other. But desire grasps, imposing shape onto the manied wandering world. It contracts the other in order to hold them in the palm: who doesn't use a pet name for their partner, proliferating nicknames for a beloved child? This love makes the other small enough to fit inside the chest.
Nothing wrong with smallifying. Nothing wrong with anything, in its place. Perhaps this kind of love is the very making of selfhood. Your parents told you who you are ("strong," "smart," "creative,") and you learned both who you are and who you are not. A boundary was formed. You can rebel against what has named you, but always in the context of other namings (while your large unnamable flights through your chest in certain quiet, human moments).
As you grow, you must learn to desire yourself. Seduced by unsolved questions, by unfaced yearnings, you will turn your gaze inward, wondering paths towards self-communion. In turning inward, the gap grows between the “I” who sees and the “I” who is seen. Self-consciousness—not the simple sensation of being-in-the-world but the awareness of that being—sprouts. Perhaps the seed of selfhood was there all along, but it becomes nothing without the pointed probe of desire.
Desire nothing, and the world sinks back into a unified scene.
Desire one or two things, and those things will expand, blocking your view of reality.
Desire everything equally and you will see the world clearly.
Desire infinity and the desire will reverse direction, plunging back into your open chest, cracking the closed cavity—
a spot of blue spilling through.
Unpacking, and I am aswim with objects: how am I possibly to care for each? I feel the weight of material things in everything still unpacked. We are minimalists in word, but downsizing from a three bedroom to a one bedroom makes even our ruthlessly pared belongings seem maximalist. They weigh on me as they are exhumed. So much to care for, and I must care for each with love, with gratitude (gratitude is simply the uncovering of the muchness of a thing, a surge of appreciation for the relationships between).
Last week, while we drove through the endless cornfields of Illinois, we listened to an interview on the Ezra Klein show with author and zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki. They discussed a range of fascinating topics— from the voices in our heads to the object animism of Marie Kondo's wildly popular tidying up method.
Kondo tells you to rid your home of any object that doesn't spark joy in your body, and then to thank it for its service. The method is partially inspired by Shintoism, which preserves the belief that objects accumulate the positive or negative energy you invest in them. Ozeki believes in some form of object animacy, perhaps even object agency.
I do not believe that objects possess independent animacy, nor that they exert anything like agency. I do believe that biological life is animate because trees, rocks, microorganisms, and mammals share animacy with a wider body. If the whole planet is a self-regulating organism, then its constituent parts don't have to be animate (or, of course, conscious) in order for them to share consciousness. Your toe is not conscious or animate on its own, but it is part of a conscious, animate body.
Of course, a human-crafted object doesn't grow from this biological web of life. It can't be said to share the animacy of the broader body. Yet, the book I am writing now, Ousia, does not use the word "it," and I think my literary decision stems from this intuition: although objects are not animate, they do speak to us.
An object is a human-crafted word, the beginning of a conversation. As I unpack a clay cup, I wonder at its material meaning. The exterior is punched inward, as if by fingers, so the cup is easier to hold. The hollow insides are a gentle entrapment of space, the form enticing a particular use. If I fill the cup with water and drink, I offer an embodied reply to the object. If it breaks, I may ask, "how would you like me to fix or dispose of you?" Questions like these do not expect human-like replies. They simply attune one's mind to the creative possibilities that are bracketed by the specific essence of a thing. They also attune to the fact of shared surroundings. From this inescapable reciprocity, an ethical response arises. A handmade, lovingly crafted object petitions love and care. An object fashioned for disposability makes itself invisible, inessential, easily ignored.
Beside the clay cup, on the metal curve of the bookshelf, I hang my copper necklace. I examine the tiny beads, the jasper stones, the turquoise and Tibetan prayer bead. A collection of parts, all of them branching outside themselves, towards each other, towards their own origin story. More than the sum of its parts, a house is a home, an outfit is a mood, a person is a new world.
But each desire bounds outside the desired thing. When the house is not so homey, you must fill it with things. When the outfit doesn't make you feel creative or sexy, you must buy more social signifiers. When the person doesn't drag you fully into the world their body displaces, you must try harder or find new displacements of space. The gap between a thing and what it means to the human being: this is the space of infinity.
Each bounded thing breaks outside its boundedness when seen completely. An object can open onto infinite lack or infinite love. To care for a single person, object, profession, is to care for all it branches towards. It is to care for everything: the particular always branching into the absolute, the absolute taking root in the particular.
(You are also a collection of parts, each part of you reaching from some unseen center, towards some unknown light).
Another story: I wanted the necklace not because it fills me finally, but because it offers a particular kind of material communion. This material world is not some weak reflection of reality; it's real, just never quite enough. The necklace is a window onto a wider reality (you are also a window). To see any object to its core is to unravel the core, to let it disintegrate into something other than object, into—
I'm sitting cross-legged on the porch, holding a cold-beaded glass of water. Tiny, winged emeralds flit across the porch— a species of fly I have never seen. I watch them. I sip the water. Tipping the glass, a splash of water spreads its shape over a porch plank. The water isn't enough to spill over the sides, so it remains a Rorschach blot—contained.
No contained object knows the shape of its life. No human.You cannot escape yourself to see yourself. Only another can tell you who you are. And the other is always wrong. (You are also an "other" to yourself, as the fact of self-reflection is a self-othering. Your psyche becomes an object as soon as you wield the analytic tool).
Only when the water disintegrates will it become what it already is: the everywhere atmosphere becoming here temporarily.
Becoming what already is: a true, but surface paradox that one must grow into their roots. And you are not just the atmosphere—vertiginous dizzy of light — but the shaped— contained in a moment, cradled by space.
We desire in order to move from one state to the next. As long as we live in these bodies, we require movement, and therefore higher and higher desires. But movement is always rooted in the perfectly still, the totally now. And there has never been anywhere but here. You've never been anyone but now.
This is why a monk or a nun leaves everything to find the One. But to leave everything is also to want, to believe that this is not enough.
Leave wanting; that will be enough.
I reach behind my neck and unclasp the necklace, palm sweat slicking the copper beads.
The shape of desire is infinite. The solution cannot be an object, as no bounded thing can contain infinity.
In me, objects attain their meaning. In perception, objects adhere to a single space-point.
The solution is not the thing but the stretching of space between.
A quote from my memoir, documenting a realization:"We are bathed in the same sky, I think. We are bound by the same atmosphere that bifurcates our bodies. Somehow, this distance between our feet is a shared belonging."
An earlier draft of the book ended with this haiku:
Praise the blue binding
that sings the unsayable
joy through my body.
The blue binding is the strange and startling link between you and each object. Between each object and everything. See the links between and eventually, the between becomes the only seen. Unselfed, de-objectified, objects unravel, leaving only the white-hot flame of want when sought outward, the infinite swell of peace when withdrawn from seeking.
I slip inside the apartment, chilled by air conditioning. The sun is simple now, uncluttered. It falls in perfect squares through the paneled glass doors. On a warm shape of sun, I tip my empty glass on its head. Face down, its material meaning shifts. No longer can it petition filling, can it imply drinking.
The necklace slides from my palm onto the floor. Snakelike it lies, radiating heat from beneath.
Nothing to fill, nowhere to be, I sit beside the necklace and breathe, the glass unspeaking meanings—