this was mostly written in August when I moved out of my old place in San Francisco. I hope everyone has a restful Thanksgiving weekend!
I’m sitting on a couch in the shell of a home. We’re moving. Or rather, we have been moving. At some point in the past month we stopped living here and began moving. It didn’t happen all at once in some grand climax where the house is emptied in a chaotic afternoon, belongings ejected onto the street like overflowing garbage. Nor did it happen seamlessly, where everything teleports into a picture-perfect apartment by an army of movers, as if by magic. It happened as most things do now, in a slow, messy shift. These transitionary moments linger like punctuation marks, little commas where time drags and the awkward assemblage of your past, present, and future are all in the same room, forcing themselves to make small talk with each other.
One roommate moved most of their stuff out a couple weeks ago, leaving gaps in the common spaces where communal art and furniture used to live. I’ve been selling my stuff on Facebook Marketplace, coming up with listing descriptions that strike the balance between sensational and search-legible for things I had forgotten existed. Every time a new item is taken, I take another picture of the newly emptying state of the home, tracing a slow but steady pilfering of a home. My body is forced to acclimate, almost daily, to a new home, one rapidly emptying of things, which, even if not sentimentally meaningful, are significant simply because of their constant, now assumed but absent, presence. Meaning and value emerged in the seams of our home through moments of sharing space accumulating, little emotional bits of lint clinging to our bodies that we can’t seem to get off no matter how hard we swipe.
I don’t feel the need to sell these objects for the money (although I’m not complaining about the new reserve for serving our capitalist overlords furnishing my next place). I feel bad seeing perfectly good things go to the garbage. I relish finding gems in other people’s trash, so it’s excruciating when I’m on the other end, forced to make a final, fatal judgment on the ultimate value of the seemingly infinite pile of goods spilling out of the closets.
Despite so much more to move, it feels like the place has already started to move on. Like a ghost swept through and kidnapped random swaths of my home. Large art pieces disappeared from the wall. The lemon-shaped lemon squeezer is gone too. I looked for it for a couple minutes before resigning myself to manual labor. The foam roller that I used to unknot my legs has found a new pair to call its companion. Each electronic component of a mini home theater has been slowly packed up and set on display like statues. Taunting me with their promise of a second, perhaps better, life.
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The bed I sleep on, one I’ve spent at least 1000 nights on over the course of 3 years, will soon be stuffed into the back of a Model 3 (I’ll be very surprised it fits, requiring a lot of not so gentle pushing and shoving and a final strained grunt tucking the final corners in) and ferried off to a co-living house. Even after all the use, it’s pristine, not a spot to be seen. It’s as if we’ve never been intimate together. Isn’t that a bit sad? Despite 1000 nights conforming our bodies to each other—mattress and I shaping each other through the arc of my back, the crane of my head, the curl of my toes—there’s no trace of me to be found. My tossing and turning, alterations between my back and my sides, the times I’ve slept sideways and backwards, when I attempted (and failed) to substitute it for an exercise mat to do leg lifts. None of it made a mark. Not even my shadow can be found on its pristine foam surface. Did none of it matter after all?
I sold my very first camera, too, to J, who I hope will have as intimate of a journey with her as I did. It’s a Nikon D3300. I got it from Amazon through one of those over-packed bundles, full of everything you might think of needing and more, during one of those flash Cyber Monday deals. It was one of the few moments in college when I decided to carve out space for myself, buying something that would actualize my burning desire to be a photographer. No longer leaving the desire to fate and chance, I shook the world and started carving my own path. It traveled with me across the world. It still has the scar on its forehead from when it scraped by a rock while scaling a mountain in Thailand, the black paint exposing a silvery undercoat. I think it looks more badass this way, markings of battle and adventure. My hands were shaped by her—I learned how to cradle a camera through our time together, how to dance together to find the right framing, how to listen to the light through our shared eyes and turn my gaze on the unnoticed, mundane spots moments of beauty. Just as I’ll never forget the memories we forged together, she’ll bear the signs of our adventures together forever.
Objects come and go like friends. Some from everyday buddies to complete strangers, traveled to some bygone world, hail-Maryed to a corner of the world you’ll never visit. Some forget you in an instant, pretend they never knew you, set history on fire and charge into a new future without you. Others linger, like orphaned shadows. They squirm to find a new way of living divorced from you, burning at the knowledge that a piece of them will always belong to you.
It’s easy to set a blanket intention from the start. I’m going to have a fresh start. Choosing a blank canvas is the easiest, if you can avoid attachment. Throw it all away and we’ll buy it all again. There is nothing more satisfying (as long as you practice burying the hint of awareness around how unsettling it should feel) than unfettered, indiscriminate erasure. Packing up large black trash bags with your entire life. That photo album from 5 years ago, the postcards from across the world, and the still-wrapped birthday presents tossed as quickly and efficiently as the now-discolored nails spent shouldering decorations.
I’ve recently taken a special interest in items from my parents’ youth. I’ve been collecting little wearable mementos of my family history: a chain of gold flowers from my mom, a traditional silk jacket from my dad, a double-collared sweater my brother wore in middle-school. The tradition of passing down family heirlooms is going out of fashion, but even when it was common, it was mostly used as a way of passing down a stable store of money for emergencies. My mom said Nai Nai used to keep some gold jewelry for this purpose, but it’s all gone now. They had no meaning because they were never used. Their purpose was practical. A personal bank. One that wouldn’t disappear when our institutions failed us again. I’m more interested in everyday family heirlooms. Mementos that have passed from ancestral hand to ancestral hand. The loyal companions that have become recorders of history, collecting stories through the bodies that carried them.
We use a small number of objects disproportionately more compared to the vast set of objects we encounter every day. And often the ones we use the most are most unremarkable, at least they seem to be on first glance. But even the most unremarkable pen or shoe becomes suffused with meaning over time. I remember there was a fraying, impractically small orange-and-yellow blanket that I slept with for over 8 years of my life. It was my most prized possession for a long time. It’s hard to recall it now, but I have no doubt it would obviously look like trash on immediate impression. It is sure to be one of the first casualties were the judgment of value delegated to movers who don’t know me. Every time my parents offered or even tried to buy a new one, I would revolt as if my life depended on it.
If you take some time to look closer, there are tells for when an object has become imbued with meaning. You can tell when wear has accrued from natural use. The pattern of wear is a complete timeline of its relationship with people. Certain patches of the blanket were softer and thinner, my favorite places to rub for comfort. I was creating my own fabric pattern through my use of the blanket, art crafted over a childhood with my everyday instincts.
We don’t pay much attention to objects in our lives. If you look closely enough, you’ll see faces emerge. You’ll find contours that form mouths, creases that form wrinkles, uneven ovals for eyes. Sometimes they’ll touch you. Mostly they watch. Carried from one event to another, or dropped into a cardboard box, locked away from light.
From couches to blankets to water bottles, anything can become treasure. We’re all alchemists if we let ourselves. Our hands are blessed by Midas; we have the power to create emotional gold. Coming into communion with an object means forming a relationship together. It means cultivating a living attachment with something not quite living. We learn to recognize and give gratitude to the faces of our nonhuman brethren, and in return, they tell us the stories of our lives.
We are magicians. We can bring things to life with our very presence. Create golems with our attention. They often don’t walk or talk or spin around for circus shows. But they receive us. Fully and willingly. They mold themselves to our behavior, our wants and needs. They bear witness and accompany us, unfailingly.
They give us the space to be free. The permission to simply exist. The agency to make disturbances that last.
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Really great read! I have this old faded t-shirt that my mom keeps encouraging me to throw away; I still wear it because it used to be my dad's. I feel like it has so much history, and you put it beautifully with "even the most unremarkable pen or shoe becomes suffused with meaning over time"
i like the we are magicians lines 🪄