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.”1

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:2

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.3

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:4 “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, because he was missing people?5

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.

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.6

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.