Object Impermanence

The world is the totality of facts, not things.  

Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

 

When we are first born the world is an unfathomable mystery. We emerge from a dark, warm home, barely larger than ourselves, into a reality that is incomprehensible—it is too vast, and we have not yet developed the capacity to sense it. For all the light, color, and shadow of this new world, our newborn eyes can not yet find meaning. Life was knowable and now it is chaos.

Within a matter of weeks we learn to identify objects from the riot of sight. A teddy bear, for example. This soft and furry lump is separate from the things underneath it, next to it, and behind it, and is something singular that we may reach for or hold. We may even clutch it tightly, and this seems to be possession. 

But there is still deep mystery in the object. Where did it come from? What causes it to appear? Where did it go? These are unanswerable to our brand new brain. And at this stage, if that teddy bear is taken and hidden—say, under a table and out of our sight—it’s existence seems to have ceased. It is, simply, gone.

Eventually we learn that objects continue to exist even when we are no longer able to perceive them. The teddy bear may be out of sight, but we understand that it’s there, under the table, extant. In just a matter of months this understanding is established, and the world begins to become comprehensible. It is the foundation upon which a lifetime of understanding is built.

The world unfolded to me, one mystery at a time, in the rooms and halls of my childhood home. While I was no longer held in the warm, quiet cradle of her belly, I learned that if I cried she would cradle me in her arms and comfort me. If I couldn’t see the soft and furry lump that I loved to hold, I learned it was waiting somewhere to be found, often where I slept. That there were words for these things and people around me: mom, teddy bear, mirror, book, brother, bed. I learned that not everything I loved in the house was mine to have. That things which are beautiful to look at can hurt to touch, but that my mother and my home would keep me safe. I learned that books should always be read at bedtime, cooking was a tangible form of love, love was abundant, and mom was always there. That no matter how old I became or how long I was away, walking in that front door would always smell the same. 

I remember laying in bed the night before I left for college, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “This is the last night that this house is my home. I’ll come back for vacations, but from now on it will be a place that I am visiting.” College, graduate school, and a gig-based career that took me around the country and across the seas meant that since that night I’ve lived in 18 different places. With so much change, the only constants in my life were the earliest ones: mom is always there, the teddy bear still exists, sitting on my childhood bed, and walking in the front door of my childhood home always smells the same.

Things began to come apart when my mother became ill—she’d managed to thrive with her alcoholism and keep it hidden for decades, but it caught up to her eventually. She changed from a constant source of comfort and love to a woman made cruel, possessed. When I cried, she would not comfort. Love was withheld. And then she died. The first world I knew, and earliest of my truths, gone. It was unfathomable. 

We have maxims to help make sense of the loss of a life: “although the person is gone, their spirit lives on in our hearts.” Since she died I’ve been working to find where it is inside me that my mother lives. At first she was an absentee tenant, but after two years she’d begun to settle into some quiet corners in a way I found comforting and constant. Things were beginning to make some kind of sense again. Mom was, once again, always there. And so were the teddy bear on the bed and the smell of coming home. 

Until they weren’t. I got a phone call that there had been an accident. My home—it’s walls that once held my whole world—went up in flames in a matter of minutes after a candle tipped over, igniting a sheet on a bed. The the people got out, the dog did not, and the house, and everything in it, was gone. 

My childhood home had burned to the ground.

I cannot explain the strangeness of seeing it the next day, still smoldering. There was some roof, not many walls, sections of floor, remnants of plates, books, chairs, beds, but mostly mounds of shapeless black rubble. All of it burned—most things past recognition, all beyond salvation. The structure itself damaged so irreparably that even the foundation needed to be demolished. Where for 42 years stood a home, now nothing but a charred black hole.

When my mother died people had so many words of comfort to offer. But when the house burned, all people could offer was shock and sorrow. Losing a house to fire is not a universal experience. We do not have maxims for the loss of things, let alone the dizzying loss of everything.

Every thing. The teddy bear is gone, as is the bed it sat on, and the floor beneath it. There is no front door to walk in, and that place which is no longer the house smells like woodsmoke, melted plastic, chemicals, and ash. 

My childhood home does not have a spirit or the intangible essence of a singular person. It was a collection of objects that were, and now are…not. The not-ness of the objects so impossible to comprehend. 

“It’s just stuff,” I’ve told people countless times, “it can be replaced.” Thank goodness nobody told me that home is where the heart it; I would have punched them.

When I was old enough to move from crib to bed, my father built a wooden frame for a twin sized mattress. My bed sat in the corner atop four milk crates. In my adolescence the bed was moved to a different wall, still in its wooden frame built by my father’s hands, but resting now atop white drawers. Old mattress, new sheets. After I’d moved out for good, a new mattress in the same wooden frame atop its drawers. New mattress, old sheets. After my mother died, a brand new double mattress in a brand new wrought-iron frame. New sheets too. Dad cut up the wood from the old frame and made sandwich boards that he painted charcoal black and which I turned into signs for my wedding. After we were married I painted black over the gold letters and made new signs with different gold names for another person’s wedding. I loaded those pieces of my once-bed into the trunk of another’s car and watched them drive away.

I wonder when exactly it was that my childhood bed ceased to exist. When it was moved from one wall to another? When I got new sheets? When the mattress was replaced? When the new bed arrived? When the wooden frame was cut up and painted black? When the new bed was blackened by the fire? 

I wonder if that bed has, in fact, ceased to exist. Are those pieces of the original wooden frame still sitting somewhere, unburned, painted the same flat black as the now burned house? Are they tucked into an attic, the corner of a garage, or perhaps at a dump, being bulldozed under a shapeless mound of rubble?

I wonder where my home went. If the reality of an object exists even outside of our ability to perceive it, what does that mean when an object is destroyed? Has it truly been destroyed? Or is our ability to perceive it that which has been destroyed? Was my home a unique collection of objects, or is the idea of Home the thing that gave it it’s meaning? 

For years now I have found deep meaning from visiting historically significant sites. The Colosseum. Stonhenge. An iron-age fort on a hilltop in Scotland. The Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation. The Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans. A restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, where George Washington had a meal in 1791 and where a recreation of Nat Fuller’s reconciliation feast was held in 2015. All places that have filled me with a sense of mystery and wonder at their meaningfulness. 

The first time I felt profoundly connected to human history was at the Acropolis in Athens when I was 25. My sandal slipped on the stones underfoot. At first annoyed, I realized that they were so smooth and shiny from over 2,000 years of footsteps. I thought of the sandaled feet of Roman senators walking over these same stones. The beginning of Western civilization was here, beneath my feet, and I could draw a direct line through history from those senators atop that hill to my birth, half a world away. I looked around for someone to share the moment with. Nobody on the hilltop was speaking a language that I even recognized, and so I pulled out my cellphone, calculating what time it was in California. I called home.

“You’ll never guess where I am,” I gushed. “At the Acropolis, looking up at the Parthenon.” 

“Oh, how incredible,” she gasped.

A place so full of history and meaning that I had to share it with my mother, standing in the kitchen, half a world away.

And now I survey the burial site of my childhood home. A place with no historical significance except my own. And I don’t have a mom to call when I’m standing there.  And I don’t really understand what the world means now that it’s gone.