Objects of Our Confection

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The Rogers Teddy Bear, 1910-1915, Canadian War Museum

This post is a mash-up. All my posts begin as journal entries and many journal entries I do not post specifically because they are so disjointed. While I use my journal to write my way through things, I prefer my posts to present an intelligible theme – who doesn’t? Anyway, I invite the reader to…, well, I’ll just get on with it.

We all feel vulnerable, insecure or anxious at some point in our lives. At these times certain unique cherished objects can often hold a remarkable power to reassure us, to connect us to loved ones and to provide us with a sense of comfort and security.

Perhaps one of the most famous modern examples of one such object is a tattered teddy bear which was chosen as the most significant of nearly 3,000 WWI artefacts submitted to the Memory Project of The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute. This small teddy bear was the treasured possession of a girl called Aileen Rogers who, at the age of 10, sent her bear in a care package to her father Lawrence who was working as a medic during the First World War. Lawrence treasured the bear, writing in a letter:

“Tell Aileen I still have the Teddy Bear and I will try to hang on to it for her. It is dirty and his hind legs are kind of loose but he is still with me.”

When Lawrence was killed at Passchendaele in 1917, the bear, by then having lost both legs and eyes, was found with him and was returned home, later becoming one of the most significant artefacts in the Canadian War Museum.

Taryn Bell, Penny Spikins, “The Object of My Affection: Attachment Security and Material Culture,” Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, Vol.II, Issue I, March 2018, pp. 23-24.

***

Timelines in general allow for a letting go of the tedious momentariness of life; the pesky am-I-doing-the-right-thing? mental state that wastes so much of one’s time and energy on fueling the flames of purposeless and doubt. The Buddhists would call it feeding the wrong wolf. There is progress and everything else that isn’t, it’s that simple. The predicament most of us allow ourselves to fall into and sometimes succumb to is that of engaging the battle that isn’t. The world is fighting me. I’m embattled. I’m trying to break through and I’m being stymied. Gatekeepers. Institutional hypocrisy. What have you. It’s all blocking my individuation. This kind of thing.

The fact is that most of us who aren’t brilliantly talented endure this. Even a handful of the brilliantly, unquestionably talented endure it, too. So be it. There is nothing to fight against here. There is only the enduring of it. Where are the saving angels? Where is the grace that bestows our beautiful reward? Out there, somewhere, perhaps. But you’ll never see it coming. Hence, to await it, pine for it, long for it, grasp at it – where does it get you? The time is always better spent getting busy with your work. Which, inevitably, despite one’s honest doubts, is what it is. And, yes, you don’t have enough time to properly engage your work, to immerse yourself sufficiently within your deliberate practice so as to make tangible progress towards mastery. Your silly paying job undermines mastery. And, for better or worse in cosmic terms, the undermining becomes, if not exactly part of the work, then at least part of the story.

What to do with this modicum of wisdom? There are always three options: (1) quit, (2) keep at it, (3) dabble. The worst thing is the dabbling for it avails you nothing. But my paying job interrupts my keeping at it, you say, so that I’m forced to dabble. Not true. What it does is slow your keeping-at-it down. To a maddening crawl. But it’s not dabbling. It’s just your VAPM slowed down to a maddening crawl. And this alone, the trying to peddle a bike in the beach sand exhausting frustration, will invite too many of us to quit. Too many of us surrender to the expediency of the conventional life. Because it pays and it keeps us busy and it provides the illusion of progress. When what it really is, if you’re cursed with being an artist-craftsman, is you choosing to peddle very fast on a good hard surface to your casket.

I perhaps overstate things. Then again perhaps I don’t. Regardless, this is my experience. Namely, tempting myself to quit and watching others quit. And I’m the most impatient asshole in the world, so this is coming from the least tolerant non-dabbler, non-quitter on the planet. It’s only dabbling when you don’t give a shit about it. I edited a chapter of TC2 last night, for example, and while it felt as if I were merely dabbling because my sense of my own incompetence was so pervasive, what I think was really going on was the work. The time flew by, I was immersed, perhaps spewing hackneyed worthless bullshit, but immersed nevertheless. This is my life. This is the way my work gets done. There is the fantasy version of the way my work gets done and, well, it’s a fantasy. Try fighting this scenario and you’ll waste the day being miserable and failing to come up with viable alternatives. I’m speaking from experience.

Sometimes it’s courageous to quit. It has to do with vanishing points, a subject I’ve address over the years. A vanishing point is when the adventure has turned into a fiasco and when you pause to yank your nose from the grindstone and peer out, you see nothing. A blank space where once you envisioned a future. It can make you wistful for the beginning and sentimental for the focus and drive and busy-body make-it-happen energy that you were feeding upon in the middle of the thing, in the trenches, battling the trials, winning and losing and fighting your way through. This struggle becomes a lifestyle and when the vanishing point has been reached you will find that it’s the only thing you have left of your dream, your vision. This is a little tragedy, then, this business some of us fall into of confusing the struggle and the trials – the little victories and the piled up failures – with the adventure. It’s not. The adventure is what your heart needs. Making it hard is the first sign of trouble regarding getting off track, from no longer being properly on the adventure and rather being slave to habit, to a misery you know. The adventure involves zeal in the face of the unknown.

It’s getting sticky discussing this. When to quit? In my experience it isn’t a question. Because by the time you’ve really started to ponder when to quit there are only two things going on: (1) your work is done or, (2) your work will never end. The only legitimate question when you find yourself at this juncture is: What are you prepared to do?

Which is to say, are you prepared to commit to your proper adventure no matter its configuration? Because the configuration has changed. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself still writing – writing whatever it is – in the face of everything that hasn’t worked out within the context of your original vision. Write, then. Write when the spirit moves you. Respond to the inarticulate speech, as they say, of your heart. Until you encounter another vanishing point. When the bliss goes away, as Campbell suggested, try to find it again. In my experience, if you’ve been properly on the adventure at all and have gained some self-possession and knack for responding to the call, the vanishing points tend to resemble more and more merely adjustments. And not about faces. This is the advantage of experience. In the beginning, finding yourself doing one silly thing after the other in a schizophrenic jumble is sometimes what needs to be done. Try on hats. Most will not fit. And the one or two that do you’ve probably already been wearing. But this is part of it. It’s part of the adventure, part of the trials. Don’t think the discernment and fine tuning of the adventure isn’t part of the adventure. When I get the big contract and people start buying my shit, then I’ll be properly on the adventure. No. That is well round the curve of the hero journey round. That’s the part where you’ve endured the departure, trials and return and also the bestowing of your boon and now the world-of-action is welcoming it. You’re giving the world something they need. Congratulations. But know that you’ve likewise achieved the end of that particular adventure. You’ve won through. Such an arrival is it’s own adventure.

Meanwhile, perhaps, like me, you find yourself holding to your vocations, to the components of your VAPM that sustain you; listening to music, cooking, walking, reading, writing. Engaging the silly things you do that fuel your zeal in the face of zero positive reinforcement elsewhere. Lately, I’ve been encountering, seemingly without seeking them, books to not only read but own, perhaps as talismans. It happens. Even for folks like me who tend to be suspicious of wanting things, let alone owning things. I’m not a collector. I don’t like how books, for example, clutter up my space. Properly organizing and storing a personal library is, after all, its own talent and expense.

Nevertheless, some books, somehow, almost force their way into my life and my space because we seem to need to be together. It’s not always books. Audio equipment does this to me, too. I’ll go years refusing myself the better speaker or hi-res component and, eventually, the resistance  transforms from prudence and frugality into its own form of roadblock and frustration. When your resistance to a thing starts becoming the thing, as it were, then it’s time to let that go and get the purchase over with.

As such, after several years of on again, off again watching a book or, more accurately, a large format, 12-volume set of books by Edmund Carpenter (based on the research of Carl Schuster) and possessing the unwieldy title, Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity, which was listed at something over $2,000 for years and which I recently spied having dropped to $1,200, I made an offer to buy it. “Will you take $800?” I asked the seller. We met in the happy middle and the monster archive is on its way to my house from Pasadena in three boxes for $1,000 plus $75 shipping.

I’d actually borrowed this title – all twelve volumes – from my local library four or five years ago via the interlibrary lone program so I know quite a lot about the contents. I’ve considered it important to my research but relegated myself to taking photos of the most significant pages and otherwise satisfying my requirements with the “greatest hits” version, retitled Patterns of  Culture that comprises a far more popularly proportioned publication. But it never seemed quite right not to have it all, as silly as it seemed then and now to attempt to own this beast. I’ve let it go, more than once, and here it is, coming back to me, at significant cost, so be it. I asked HWG, “Am I crazy?”

“No,” he said, regurgitating my own advice back to me in his own words, “It’s just life: 12 volume monster zeal!” Indeed.

For however long it takes to keep the energy moving, then, you will own some things. It might not be forever. But when things empower us, when the energy is compelling and when you’ve let it go and it just keeps coming back, then it’s perhaps time to surrender, cobble the money together and buy it. If it’s wrong, it’ll be obvious and these days, it’s easy to just sell it somewhere online. Perhaps at a loss. But that’s not the point. The point is, things possess energy and when it empowers you, it’s a good thing. When it disempowers you, as it often will, buying shit is a compulsion and a neurosis and an excuse for not doing something else you need to stop. But don’t sweat it too much, either. I do that; namely, guilt myself into a worthless over-analysis of the whole thing. It’s only money. If you make a mistake buying something you don’t need, just don’t make the mistake of tossing into your closet, basement or garage (folks don’t really have attics anymore) thinking that, well, somebody I might need it. You won’t. Sell it, give it away or throw it the fuck out. If you’re really in doubt, give it the year test: if you’ve had a thing for a year and never touched it, looked at it or though about it, you can be certain it’s time to unload it. Just do it.

It might be worth something someday. My god, I hate this excuse. No, it won’t. Not even your original Beatles L.P. from 1962 will be worth anything like real money. Nobody except the Queen of England and the millionaires and billionaires of this world own anything of lasting value and only if they’ve got taste. Which they usually don’t. Otherwise, when they die, just like for the rest of us, it’ll be the roll-offs in the driveway, hauling away the junk you’ve collected to the landfill. Your shit isn’t worth shit. Just make that assumption. On the off, completely improbable chance that you’ve accidentally horded something of significant worth – a classic car, valuable painting, lamp, ceramic pot, rare first edition, pricey Godzilla collectible, what have you – it will likely be in spite of yourself. Collect what you luv, buy the things you like and know that, when you die, after everybody has picked through your junk, it’ll get thrown away. As it should.

I recall the time one of my distant relatives died – an aunt of my father’s or what have you – and somehow my parents convinced my wife and me to cruise through the house with them in case we wanted anything. Because, of course, there was a lot of stuff in the house. Cupboards filled with canned goods, stuff in the basement – card tables, folding chairs, etcetera – and the inevitably horrible furniture. “How about this dining room table? You guys need a dining room table, don’t you?” I go through the motions, thinking, yes but, ugh, not this style of table. I duck under thing and discover an entire leg of the pedestal has been broken off (how did this happen, wild party?) and reattached, clumsily, via a handful of long wood screws. Nice. Okay, no thanks. “You don’t want it?” Dad, the leg has been broken off and screwed back on. It’s not an heirloom. My dad’s disappointment was profound given the circumstance. But that’s an indicator of how people invest things with the essence of the person who owned them or an essence of life that really isn’t there except in their own head. This ugly lamp was your mother’s favorite, don’t you want it? As somehow a symbol of my mother? That kind of thing. My mother is still alive and he’s not an afficionado of lamps, I made that little scene up. But, if it’s in your own head, that’s fine, that’s what empowers a thing to do its work in your life. But this type of empowerment is not typically, or very often, transferrable. All this is to say that your house and the stuff that’s in it does not amount to an art museum. It’s likely mostly a scrap yard. Get over it. That said, there are often other very legitimate things going on with our things.

Object attachment results from a deep-seated psychological need for emotional support, a need which is not always fulfilled by other people and which is not merely a representation of a modern, capitalist obsession with material things. Rather, attachment objects function for the benefit of our wellbeing, prosociality and ability to adapt to adverse circumstances

Ibid., 28

In all, this idea of object attachment and the empowerment of things is a very interesting one not least in terms of emotional support in pedestrian terms (fondness for a toy or a security blanket, etcetera) but also because it speaks to symbology, hence mythology and the idea of the affecting image, of things possessing and communicating a deeply entangled personal and cultural mythos that oftentimes transcends millennia.

This is a topic that invites a book length manuscript or at least an expansive chapter within The World As Personal & Cultural Mythology, yet to be written, but I must end it here as the day job beckons. Until next time, thanks for reading.