“I looked around the rooms I did not see as rooms,
but more as landscapes for my emotions, a biography of memory.”
The Shape of Water
My wife and I have always been collectors, not for investment, but because something struck our fancy:a painting, an old English tea caddy, an antique desk, for example. I have bought old books and Caroline old china. We have politically incorrect knick-knacks, wooden snuff boxes and cast-iron doorstops. Amidst the books and papers that clutter my built-in desk are two dozen photographs, an old Wall Street cartoon and the paper ticker, embedded in Lucite, of a trade I helped facilitate many years ago. On the walls of our small library, where seven hundred books have found a home, hang forty-five framed paintings, photographs, drawings and letters, most having to do with family. Collections, as someone once said or wrote – or should have if they did not – are little more than reflections of the collector. Look at our walls and bookshelves, I tell our grandchildren, and you will learn something of us. These are walls that talk.
The collecting of “things” has become passé, in an age of helicoptering parents who prefer the bustle of in-town living to the placidity of rural life. Collecting can be a selfish and solitary avocation, for it is only the self that wants pleasing. Experiences, in contrast, are usually shared. Experiences, of course, are often memorialized in things: photos, mementos or souvenirs of places and sights visited. But, do we take time to savor last years’ trip, or are we too busy planning next years’ expedition? This is not to argue against experiences, especially with children and grandchildren. God knows I love them, but perspective is wanted, and balance is needed.
Has the pendulum swung too far from “things”? Who, we are asked, would want ‘brown’ furniture in their living room, pieces of junk in the family room, crockery in the pantry, dusty books on shelves and old paintings on walls? Well, we would. But the furniture are antiques and the junk, curios. The crockery is, in fact, Meissen, the “dusty old books” include first editions of Through the Looking Glassand Huckleberry Finn, and the “old pictures” include a few Connecticut impressionists. While recognizing that changing habits are to be expected, there is a compulsivity toward the “doing of it now” that possesses our ego-obsessed culture, which is troubling, making those like me feel like dinosaurs in an age of Twitter.
Life is more than collecting “things” and even more than experiences. In The Second Mountain, David Brooks writes of his climb toward faith: “Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes from offering gifts. Happiness fades; we get used to the things that make us happy. Joy doesn’t fade. To live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude and hope.” There is wisdom in those words. There is so much about the world we do not know and cannot understand. While there are some who claim that all climate change is due to man, I feel humbled when a thunderstorm passes through, a winter storm brings devastation, or the sea churns in enormous, potentially destructive waves. The Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory tells us that the average hurricane generates and releases energy equivalent to almost two hundred times the electrical generating capacity of the planet. There is no question that man has affected our climate, but he is not the only – and probably not the principal – cause. It makes one realize there are forces greater than man. I am filled with wonder of the natural world, gratitude for being alive, and hope for a future that is free and peaceful for my grandchildren.
But is a joyful life simply a belief in God, helping others, or witnessing nature’s mysteries? Perhaps? However, in my opinion joy comes from striking the right balance between work, home, play, faith and community service. Joy stems from being happy with one’s self. Certainly, the absence of bad luck plays a role, but it is mostly about walking the line between compulsion and dedication; a willingness to work hard, but not at the expense of ignoring one’s family. The Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr comes to mind: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” When I skied, there was joy in fresh powder on the Bolshoi Ballroom at Vail. Having given up skiing, I find joy in walking alone through the woods and in putting words on paper. Joy comes from the pleasure of giving back to one’s community some of what one has gained. I get joy in our infrequent visits to church. And I get joy in looking at things we have collected over many years – a photograph of me and my sister, each holding our dolls, taken around 1943; a painting my wife did while a student in Boston in 1959; a wooden Christmas Tree ornament bought in Germany on our honeymoon in 1965; a Henry King Taylor painting “Carrying Out the Anchor” bought in Haddam, Connecticut in the late 1960s; a family history discovered at Boston’s Goodspeed’s in the 1970s; a signed copy of Midstreamby Helen Keller, and numerous pieces of sculpture and drawings by parents, children and grandchildren.
It is said that “enough is enough,” and that probably applies to this essay. But what does it really mean? Are your demands the same as mine? Life is not (or should not be) a competition. We are here for a moment, and then, like all living things, we die. Are we remembered? Looking at what we have collected, I see history and the memories they evoke. A drawing of my father as a child and a silhouette of my mother in her riding habit at age twelve make me think of their childhoods and of how the world has changed. I recall once an Aunt coming to our home in Greenwich, seeing a chest that had belonged to her mother, my grandmother. She said how pleased she was to see that piece, well-loved as before, but in its new home. My wife and I feel the same way, seeing things we once owned now gracing rooms or walls in the homes of our children. Each carries a memory; each tells a story, one we relate, and which may (we hope) be passed down to future generations. History is more interesting when personal. “Things” help pave that way.
In defending “things,”I am not belittling the experience of a bungee jump in Costa Rica, serving a meal at a soup kitchen, or renewing one’s faith. I am suggesting that, in this trip through life, which we are all fortunate to be on, never be embarrassed because you chose a silver cow creamer over a trip to Disney World. It is finding the right balance.Self-help books are of little use, as we each find balance in different ways. In life it is the trip, not the destination, that is important. David Brooks finds joy in different ways than do I, and what is optimum for me will be different from what is right for you. There is no right or wrong way in the search for joy, only what is most comfortable and what brings peace and comfort, whether it is renewed faith, a sunset on an island beach, or a P.G. Wodehouse first edition.
This article was first published on Thought of the Day.