The Precious Things We Keep Nearby

“Her many belongings were precious but heavy with the weight of memory.”
Irving Yalom

In drawers and cupboards, on desktops and shelves, in pockets and purses, we keep precious items. Pencils, rocks, shells, boxes, pennies, bells, rings, and things—they are special and precious. Things we keep at home, and things we might not leave home without.

In Night, Elie Wiesel’s clear and horrifyingly true story of his evacuation from a Hungarian ghetto and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Wiesel remembers a prisoner playing a Beethoven sonata on the violin. “Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence.”

Someone kept a violin in Auschwitz? Grace has a sinister side. Amidst humans marching to gas chambers, a violin holds a note of humanity. It’s not the violin that’s incomprehensible. It’s that this man kept it close.

When we keep things close, they catch in our gravity, sit in our orbits. We share forces like power, identity, memory. Things we cannot possibly abandon.

Above all memory. Little joggers of places, moments, and words that happened. Our past selves, other people.

I keep a small ceramic pot full of waxy orange stamp ink. It was my grandmother’s, bought it in China fifty years ago. When I was young I used to put my finger in it and touch things, spreading beautiful orange, enraging her to no end. Grandma died years ago, but the pot remained in Grandpa’s home. My grandfather died this year and I requested the pot. A childhood print was still in the ink. A witness of the past. I keep it close.

Writer Dani Shapiro maneuvers us around her nearby precious things in her memoir Still Writing:

My desk is covered with talismans: pieces of rose quartz, wishing stones from a favorite beach, essential oils with names like concentration and focus and inspiration—the kind I might have laughed at when I was younger… All that stuff is there to remind me to stay in the present.

Precious ceramics by Isobel Egan, James Oughtibridge and Yuta Segawa. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I keep a wide orbit of preciousness.

Pictures, stones, beads, an arrowhead, dried flowers, seeds, pine cones, small mirrors, elephant-shaped paperclips, tassels, things purple. When I moved into my first apartment, my mom packed my precious things in a box she labelled “Treasures.” The movers got a kick out of that.

Since moving to England, I’ve collected a few small ceramics. Hard, smooth, always cold with achingly tender widths. They give me comfort. Touch is critical to connecting.

Precious ceramics by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My husband keeps lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) in his closet. He touches it absently while choosing a tie. It calms him, the touch and the act of touching. Connecting.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes fondly of a rock collection. Not the talismans most of us gather but specific elements of the periodic table. Minerals, like a bottle of mercury.

I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss […] by turning to the nonhuman. […] Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.

These precious things we keep nearby hold our vast emotions with ease. They are vessels for the things we can’t carry and can’t abandon. And after we’re gone, they will speak of us.

James Oughtibridge’s ceramic maquettes. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In an emotional and empathetic exploration of the “human death anxiety,” psychiatrist Irvin Yalom urges connection as a way to overcome our fears of nothingness:1

“There is a biological fear that is hardwired into us. I know this fear is inchoate—I’ve experienced it too. It doesn’t have words. But every living creature wishes to persist in its own being.”

We are connected deeply to our precious things because they persist when we cannot. We might not know where we exist beyond death, but we know these things will persist on earth. This is all perfectly healthy and natural and human.

However, we must take care these connections don’t stand in for human connections.

When French travel writer Sylvain Tesson forwent civilization to spend six months in Siberia, he formed strong connections to things. Simple, needless things that suddenly became crucial. Is this because he was missing people?

An object that has been with us through the ups and downs of life takes on substance and a special aura; the years give it a protective patina. To learn to love each one of our poor patrimony of objects, we have to spend a long time with them. […] As the nature of objects reveals itself, I seem to pierce the mysteries of their essence. I love you, bottle…

I love you, bottle… more than I love anyone else?

Precious ceramics by Yuta Segawa. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In drawers and cupboards, on desktops and shelves, in pockets and purses, precious things we keep nearby. Requiring nothing but place, they give us memory, calmness, comfort, and infinite, welcoming capacity.2

They don’t, however, give us each other.

“Darling, I now have a butter dish shaped like a cow,” Leonard Cohen announces almost wistfully in his Book of Longing.

I too have a cow-shaped crockery. A white ceramic creamer. One of the precious things I keep nearby, a memory of something. Like all ceramics, it’s always cold.

The Fear of Being Interrupted

“I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up. I let the cabin get very cold, and I rejoice in my good fortune. Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.”
Leonard Cohen

Nurturing hard-earned disinterest in the superficial, abandoning our immediate needs and finding scope in what Mary Oliver calls “the eternal,” takes enormous effort. We must abandon pressing needs, ignore threats, and generally suspend our self. But the reward is glorious: time slows, and we melt into true emotional comfort and creative flow… perfection.

In this wondrously creative but indeed vulnerable state, even the slightest interruption feels like an attack. A force barraging down on us, yanking our soft self apart.

The interruption is so great even the fear of it primes anxiety. Like standing too close to the train tracks, an engine rattling in the distance.

London Underground, Notting Hill Gate Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I first heard of this “fear of being interrupted” in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s estimable memoir Ruined by Reading.

I contracted a phobia for which there is no name, the fear of being interrupted. (It may also be why, as I grew up, I came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.) Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand I do something. Of course, I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is beside the point. The spell will have broken.

I underlined these words so firmly I tore the page. Schwartz put words to feelings and visualizations to fears that I and other writers, thinkers, and ponderers have long felt. Poets Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke. Writers Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, and Annie Dillard. And, of course, Canada’s most famous monastic, Leonard Cohen.

In “The Luckiest Man in the World,” Cohen writes:

Saturday night really is, as they say, ‘the loneliest night of the week.’ I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up… Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.

A spider threatens our thoughts? Why are our thoughts so fragile? Because they aren’t real? Don’t memories and thoughts exist whether we access them or not?

London Underground, Earl’s Court Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps not. Recent neuroscience research argues that memories are not (as we imagine) file cabinets; they are actually formed anew once we call them up. Not only does this mean memory distorts truth, but it also means the effort to have a memory is rooted in creativity, not in rigorous thinking.

Creativity requires safe soil. This self, the one that floats sublimely free from immediate needs… we are vulnerable, angered, even disoriented. We form hides and protective walls. And most dangerously, we fear. Schwartz continues on her interruption:

The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic itself is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

We interrupt ourselves, indeed. In John Steinbeck’s Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938–1941, the fear of interruptions, specifically people needing him, unnerves him completely:1

Irritated today. People want to come see me next Monday. Can’t be. Just want to sit. Day not propitious. […] I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now. It’s just like slipping behind at Stanford. Panic sets in. Can’t organize. And everybody is taking a crack at me. What time, want to use me. In aggregate it is terrible. And I don’t know where to run. Ought to go into the wild somewhere but I am needed here. Got to calm down.

What Steinbeck sought, French travel writer Sylvain Tesson achieved: complete solitude in the “wild” to explore his own mind and being. During his self-imposed isolation in Siberia, Tesson seeks solitude, gains it, and, in a moment of rage, loses it.

From his diary The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga, that moment of interruption happens when his sanctuary, a lone outcrop on the lake’s edge, becomes the place that “Russia’s nouveaux riches fawn like groupies.” Specifically, snow mobiles. Tesson is devastated, embarrassed, and angry: “What I came here to escape has descended on my island: noise, ugliness, testosterone-fueled herd behavior.”

Devastated. How resonating. Being interrupted is more than losing thoughts or to-do lists. It can feel like we lose a part of ourselves. Or worse, that part is destroyed.

London Underground, Perivale Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When I began writing, I had to explain to my husband that the slightest chirp could pull me down from my thoughts and land me hard on the ground, creatively broken. I can’t ask him for silence in our own home, but I can ask him to not need me during certain times. He tries. But even now, I see him turning his head to get my attention, wanting to talk…tossing me his “busyness” as Mary Oliver called it.

“The Old Poets of China”

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

It seems unreasonable, and at times it is, but this need from others will stunt many of us who long to connect with unspoken parts of ourselves rather than freely given parts of others.

We can relocate to the woods (Oliver, Dillard), the mountains (Cohen), Siberia (Tesson), or to a cramped studio in Notting Hill, but the intrusive world is beyond our control.

What we can control, however, is how we regain focus once lost. Right? That is perfect uninterruptability.

The Abounding Similarities Between Tea and Poetry

“It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
Kakuzo Okakura

On a bright corner between Piccadilly Circus and Green Street Stations sits my favorite London destination: two neighboring purveyors. To the left, Fortnum & Mason, department store and tea merchant since 1703; on the right, Hatchards Bookshop, an inimitable vendor of warming poetry (and other books) since 1797.

Let’s wander.

Fortnum’s unfolds like a dream. Billowed drapes, whimsical shop windows, costumed attendants slicing fresh nougat. And doll-sized collectables like silver jam spoons and porcelain bears, tucked under glass panes. In the back, past the sweets, jams, honey, curds, biscuits, and sumptuous chocolates, are the teas. A wall of canisters. An inventive tower allows (olfactory) sampling of the proprietary blends. The names speak poetry:

Earl Grey: “Simple and stimulating”
Fortmason: “Perfumed and subtle”
Lapsang Souchong: “Delicious and smoky”
Russian Caravan: “Light and nutty”
Chai: “Spicy and exquisite”

Fortnum & Mason tea canisters. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Poetry is balance of things opposed.”

Who said that? Coleridge? It must be, for it was Coleridge’s own “Kubla Khan” that slaps us with contradiction.1 He artfully builds paradise with lines like “stately pleasure dome and scared rivers,” crossed by “fertile rivers” and teeming with “giant gardens bright.” Then, harshly, he ignites that lingering doubt—this cannot possibly be real—and destroys everything with “All should cry ‘Beware! Beware!’”

Nothing is the ultimate balance.

Coleridge can be a bit nutty. For a softer, more internal warmth might I recommend “Pleasures” by British poet Denise Levertov. An old favorite. I love how the right margin undulates in soothing harmony;

I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies
within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull features of glass, hidden
in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board –
tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design.

Read it aloud and tap as you go. Find the syllables to stress; they are hidden, difficult. They don’t keep to the breaks.

There is a delightful something hidden, something simple and stimulating.

Teapots made by Richard Brendon a uniquely-talented British craftsman. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Tea has elegance too, in its proportion: hot liquid, cool pot.

I hold empty pots to my neck in the summer. Tea to milk (I prefer milk), steeping. And even in the production: a simply plucked leaf, wilted, bruised, oxidized, shaped, and dried, all in proportion. I left with 250g of loose Russian Caravan, smoky and salutary.

An old favorite. Delicious poems await. Tea and poetry. Onward.

Hatchards, once you skoosh past the throngs of tourists, the stacks of best-sellers, and the queue for the till, opens to a large, beckoning interior. Lit shelves, dark wood struts, an ambling staircase.

First, a wonderful sip of British novelist P. G. Wodehouse (Hatchards has a lovely collection although Wodehouse is also enjoyable aloud), a stir with Romantic verse, and finally, a selection of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled.2

Fry cautions: “You can never read a poem too slowly.” He urges a pause. He urges us to exist in the atmospheric stillness, a state artist Leonard Cohen called the most difficult and most rewarding of his life.

Something stirs. A contradiction. Few cultures celebrate tea as extravagantly as the British, how novelist Graham Greene remembered in his memoirs:

The silver pot, the tall tiered cake-stand, like a Chinese temple, two kinds of bread and butter, white and brown, cucumber and tomato sandwiches cut razor-thin, scones, rock-buns, and then all the cakes…

My collection of Richard Brendon teaware put to good use. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Indeed. Yet, it is a culture that rejects indulgence often—from preferred weather-oriented conversation staples to the “Keep calm…” (and do-not-indulge-emotions) mantra. Yet, indulgence in tea and poetry. Why?

Drink tea. Read poetry. Do both indulgently?

In our modern life, there is much need for pause. Although random pauses accomplish little, specific pauses, between moments of stimulation (usually negative) and response, accomplish everything. Someone steps in your way, cuts in the queue, snaps; we can respond (usually negative), or we can pause.

We not only pause, we saturate that pause with comfort, thoughtfulness, and meaning—feelings created by tea, poetry. A reflection on those rich pleasures and the joy they bring… Will we be more likely to find empathy, patience, kindness?

Might we even find “purity and harmony”?

Those aren’t my words; they belong to Kakuzo Okakura, a Japanese scholar and cultural critic who wrote The Book of Tea in 1906 extolling the aestheticism of tea and the delight of the poetic-minded pause.

It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

[…]

The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence and linger in the beautiful and foolishness of things.

Step into the still air and deep comfort brought on by the enjoyment of soul-enriching activities like tea and poetry. Find something buried, something vulnerable, possibly your best self.