lfDP Writing 101 Day 20: Possessions & Long-form writing
I’m not going to lie to you this time. My mind feels like a revolver with somebody else’s finger on the trigger. Writing this will be difficult. Why? I have been asked to write the story of my “prized possession” and to write a fairly “long” story, rather than a short riff about it. This feels difficult for a number of reasons.
First, I’m not a collector of possessions: no house, no band saw, no ‘65 Porsche. Most of my life has been a man in motion—moving from one town to another, moving from one job to another, moving from one country to another, one hobby to another, one life to another, one woman to another (okay that’s a story for another day). Even these days when I’m in my own country, I live in a motorhome and park in some lovely spot in the mountains or some other lovely spot by the sea. For most of my life, I was pretty much the poster child for minimalist living. Just recently, I purchased my first TV (and I’m not a young man), and, get this, I don’t even own a smartphone. I’m not a dinosaur, I just never wanted a phone that was smarter than me. Okay, I’m a dinosaur.
Second, the items that I have purchased during my travels in various places around the world are all loved pretty much equally. I mean, take the broken tile from Delft (Holland) mounted on a faux-antique frame painted gold. Such kitsch, but for some reason I have not changed the frame—the combination seems to work in some appealing way for my eye, and senses, (or should we call it procrastination?). During an unusually-sunny summer a few years ago, I was holed up in a quaint canal house in Amsterdam, and met up with Nina T, one of my favorite travel buddies. After downing the requisite afternoon Heineken at an outdoor table of a pub alongside the Prinsengracht, we hopped a train and traveled to Delft, a picturesque little town right out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Lying just north of Amsterdam, Delft is famous for a couple of things: its pottery, its Nieuwe Kerk (new church) dating from the 14th century, its history of breweries, and the famous painter, Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer painted mostly inside domestic scenes, and usually in his studio located inside his house, in Delft. He’s the guy who painted “The Milkmaid” pouring milk from a clay pitcher into a clay bowl, and “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” that Scarlett Johansson played in the movie.
On another adventure, Nina T and I had once visited Jane Austen‘s house, located in the little burg of Chawton, about an hour southwest of London. Fine, Jane Austen was a good writer, but I’ve never been a big fan—no car chases, nobody gets blown up, no sex. What I remember most about Chawton, besides the fact that nothing’s there (no, literally), is the fine little pastry shop just across the street from Jane Austen’s house. If you like scones, drive on down to Chawton and view Jane Austen’s house from the shop across the street.
Nina T and I—lovers of the insides of other people’s houses—wanted to check out the inside of Vermeer’s home, but it was closed for renovations. It was easy, however, to see how the inside would brighten from the natural light pouring through the large windows.
In an effort to create pottery that looked like Chinese porcelain, Delft craftsmen from that era typically used a combination of three different clays: a local calcium-rich marl, a clay from France, another from Germany. They covered the finished piece in a white tin glaze, then coated it with a clear glaze. They painted designs in cobalt blue, and ultimately, other colors and ended up with a fairly good imitation of Chinese porcelain. I’ve never been a big fan of Chinese porcelain, the designs are too busy. Dutch wall tiles are much less busy. Some may have only one flower, a sea shell, a dog, or a man wielding a scythe.
I purchased my tile from an antique purveyor in Delft. It was made centuries ago, by Delft craftsmen. It is actually half a tile, split pretty much right down the middle. In the center you see a piece of a flower, a tulip, and a fleur-de-lis at each corner. The tile had the date of its approximate production taped to the back. The tape loosened, got lost. I have a bad memory, but I remember something like 1658.
This would have been about the time Vermeer was painting “The Milkmaid” in natural light in the studio of his home. I keep imagining how this tile got broken, the room where it lived, the people, their clothes. I would love to listen to its long tale, the saga of lives it witnessed through history. Because of all that is happening in the world these days, I keep telling my friends that I’m glad I was born at the time I was, when life was simple, and I grew up wearing no damn helmet while riding my bike, could walk the three miles to school in complete safety, and never once worried about a dead phone battery. I’m not sure I like where civilization is headed, I’m not sure I want to be living here in another 50 or 100 years (a cell phone embedded in my ear, computer screen in my retina, mandatory yoga classes in kindergarten). However, I would truly love to be on the planet when they invent a time machine and travel back centuries to a time when life was even more simple, yet hard. But then, can’t you just imagine the bookies of the future taking bets on just what Noah’s ark was made of. My bet would be reeds.
SULAWESI SUN HAT
How does one love a broken Delft tile more than, say, the straw hat from Sulawesi. The hat is shaped like one of those conical affairs you see in every airline ad for Asia. This one comes from the island of Sulawesi, which lies in the Indian Ocean between Borneo and the Maluku Islands.
This hat, though, is not your average pointy hat, nor one made to be sold in tourist shops and airports. The hat is worn only by noblewomen from the Sada’an area of Toraja, generally worn for special occasions—funerals, weddings, the like. The hat is woven from the outer sheath of bamboo and interwoven with rattan. Easily recognizable as a finely-crafted piece of high-quality goods. The woman who owned this important ceremonial hat would have given special thought as to what kind of tie she would use to hold it on during various ceremonies. The tie on this hat is made from natural dies from berries, and a tablet-weaving method called palawa.
I’ve driven a car around the Big Island of Hawaii, and it took quite a while. I always thought it was a pretty big island. But Hawaii is only the 73rd largest island in the world if you can believe what some people say, and harbors something like 190,000 inhabitants. Sulawesi is the 11th largest island in the world. It’s shaped like a drunken crocodile dancing upright on its hind legs. Over 17 million people live there. In the Toraja area, they build houses, called tongkonan, using tongue-and-groove joinery (no nails), with saddle-back roofs that are maybe 30-40 feet high at the peaks, creating automatic air conditioning. Lovely designs in hand-carved wood. Built on stilts high enough to corral water buffalo and pot-bellied pigs below.
Maybe you’ve heard of the funerals they perform in this part of the world? Torajans are rather obsessed with death, but not in a grim way; their funerals appear more like going away parties for the dead. To an outsider’s eye, the funerals seem to be fairly gruesome affairs, where numerous water buffalo and pigs are slaughtered in a rather unseemly, inhumane, and bloody, fashion. Not for the squeamish. And when people die, their bodies are placed in a tomb in the face of a high, vertical cliff wall. Effigies, called tau tau, are placed at the entrance and represent the dead. The effigies line up side by side, dressed in traditional clothes, and stand before the tomb as if on a balcony overlooking the land below. I’m pretty sure the genesis of the latest fad word “awesome” appeared when some young Westerners, probably backpackers from the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, first saw this part of the world. You can hear them now:
“Wow, look at that house, what do ya call that thing, dude?”
“Gawd, dude, I don’t know. It’s…it’s…awesome, dude.”
“No other word for it, man. Just …..awesome.”
Before these guys arrived, these houses were “far out.” And a little further back in time, they were “heavy.” Before that, they were “cool.” Before that, they were “bitchin.” At some point, they were probably “the cat’s pajamas,” but that was before my time.
KATMANDU KITCHEN KNIFE
And really, how does one love a piece of art like that immaculate hat any more than the atavistic kitchen knife from Katmandu? The knife is old and well used, small, made for the hand of a small woman. The blade is not stainless steel, so it’s a bit rusty, yet sturdy and holds a sharp edge well. It will easily slice through your finger to the bone if you (no…we’ll leave that little ditty for another time).
The handle of the kitchen knife is made from water buffalo bone and brass. The sheath is an amalgam of intricately hand-carved metals, with a small ribbon of water buffalo tongue embedded in the carving (yeah, me too, I want to know that story—water buffalo tongue on your kitchen paring knife?). When you hold this knife in your hand and measure its heft, you want to talk to this knife, you want to ask it questions. Maybe it speaks the same language as the broken Delft tile?
When I finally arrived in Katmandu, I almost wanted to kick myself for not getting there sooner. Twenty years before, I was traveling in Malaysia and toting a Smith-Corona journalist’s typewriter. Small for a typewriter. But, yeah, still as heavy as a small typewriter. It weighed almost as much as the few items I carried in my small pack. And I was having too much fun to actually sit and write anything on the thing. Talk about dead weight in your life. I left Malaysia by a small, longtail motorboat. I was the only foreigner onboard. Everyone else was Thai, going home, nobody spoke English. The passenger area was covered with a tarp over bent metal, looked like a Conestoga wagon on top. We couldn’t see where we were going. I remember at one point, feeling a little uneasy about that. But this was a time in my life when I simply allowed myself to be taken care of by the universe. And the universe did a damn good job of taking care of me. I landed in Crabbe, and got another longtail, one with open sides to enjoy the view, headed to Phra Nang. We passed James Bond Island and other limestone islands right out of your average tourist brochure. I ended up in a very poetic grass hut overlooking Phra Nang Bay, and never left. I lived through a typhoon, I lived through searing heat, I lived through “the time of bad girls and criminals.” I completely over stayed my visit in Thailand and never quite got to Katmandu or Burma on that trip, as I had planned. I hooked up with a group of people in Phra Nang, became close friends immediately, and we made a pact to meet up again in Zanzibar for New Years Eve, 2000. I didn’t make it, and I’ve been wanting to get to Zanzibar ever since. Lesson learned: go when you can.
LAGO SANDOVAL COTTON BATIK
At one time in my life, I thought I would become an artist. During grade school I’d get in trouble for drawing during class and not paying attention. This may account for my being so terrible at math. And a slow reader. A little later in life after thinking about it a bit, I decided I didn’t want to be a starving artist. So I got a degree in business, did business, owned a couple of my own businesses. One was an import business from Mexico…wipe that knowing grin off your face.
Then, after discovering the toll of what one must do to keep making money, I sold my business in Aspen (forfeited half the profit, lost half my Jeep, all of my cat, and pot-bellied stove to my most-recent-ex-wife) and spent the rest of my life starving but minus the making of art. Okay, not starving, but un-rich. I don’t like a lot of art that I run across. Something about the piece has to strike my eye, and spirit, in just the right way for me to like it. I very rarely buy art because I’d prefer to hang my own art on my walls. Or artifacts, like pointy straw hats and sarongs, from distant lands. A number of years ago, one of my favorite travel buddies, Lisa G, and I washed up in the Amazon River basin (I told you…moving on—woman to woman, travel buddy to travel buddy, country to country).
One place we stayed in was a lodge of sorts on Lake Sandoval deep in the jungle, and when we say deep, we mean hours-by-motorboat upriver. And then slugging down a water-logged, mud path with muck so deep and thick, it sucks your boots off your feet. You don’t want to fall down in that stuff. Some people did. And when we say jungle here, we mean heavy jungle, deadly jungle, make-sure-you-have-a-guide-along jungle. Lake Sandoval is now a lake, but was once part of the serpentine river that undulates, like a snake, through the land. But somehow the river blocked off the two ends of one of its U-shaped undulations and formed a land-locked lake, which is now the home of some unique, giant sea otters. And a bunch of other critters, like colorful scarlet macaws and snarly, over-sized albino scorpions. And malaria-toting mosquitos strong enough to carry off a Volkswagen.
On the wall of the lodge, the owners had hung a piece of batik cotton, in tan and brown, made by a local tribe. As soon as I saw that batik, I knew I wanted a piece of art from that tribe. I think the art somehow depicts the way my brain feels most of the time: a jumble of unrecognizable stuff, but somehow, an unorganized flowing of organization. Maybe? Through the process of moving and traveling several times since leaving Peru, I have misplaced my notes with the name of that tribe. I think it is the Ese-eja Indians, but can’t be sure. But whatever tribe, you just know the artist was high on peyote, or some other Amazon medicinal herb, when he created this piece, and was possibly capable of visiting other dimensions where he could converse with the dead and also with objects like broken Delft tiles and kitchen knives from Katmandu.
I don’t see how I could love one of these pieces, and therefore, one memory or experience more than the other. Each piece has its own spice, its own flavor, its own comfortable chair inside my mind. I could not choose one as “most-prized.” And that’s why today, I feel like a pistol ready to fire. And it’s funny, because I guess I did lie to you after all—apparently, I am a collector. You will notice that they are small, light weight, and easily transported while traveling. But I now believe I am attached to them all in a way that I was not consciously aware of before.
However, I believe I have never really looked at them as “possessions” or even “objects.” I view them as extensions of myself because when I see one of them hanging on my wall or sitting on a bookshelf, I’m transported back in time, and I relive the time and space, the emotion or drama, the heat or chill, or inhale the pungent or sweet aroma, from where it came. So “technically” one could argue that I did not lie—because to me, these pieces are sentient memories that speak to me in a common language, and are not merely inanimate prized possessions.
Also submitted to Photo Rehab, view other photos here: REHAB