The Subjectivity of Objects
A coffee grinder, The Book of Form & Emptiness, The Things They Carried, Shinto, Minimalism + more
Before I dive into the first of June’s newsletters (there will be two, to make up for my miss in May—blame covid!), I want to use this top-of-the-fold spot to let everyone know I have TWO readings for XO coming up! First, at Pagination Bookshop on June 21st (details here; RSVP here), and then at Women & Children First on July 14th (details soon!). Both events are free and virtual.
And now on to our regularly scheduled programming—
Every morning, among the handful of actions I do first upon waking is make coffee. If I cannot have coffee (bloodwork, grocery list snafu, bad hotel room) I become very anxious, but I’m not one of these fancy coffee people who have a Chemex and take the water temperature before brewing. I just need a very strong, hot cup of coffee in my hands preferably within 30 minutes of opening my eyes.
One of the “oldest” objects I own is a Braun coffee grinder. “Oldest” is in quotes not because this piece of equipment is actually the oldest: my new-to-me roll-top desk and copy of Holly Hobbie’s Nursery Rhymes and some vintage clothing and lamps with bad wiring are actually, years-wise, much older, but I refer to this coffee grinder as one of my oldest objects because I’ve been carrying it around with me the longest. My dad bought it for me for my 21st birthday; I was living in lower Manhattan at the time and the year was 2001. Much of what I remember from that year of my life is messy. But not the coffee grinder. The grinder brought me pleasure each morning, that hard CCCCHHHHHHUUUURRR of beans against blade, the dusky scent of fresh grounds, the first sip. The coffee grinder is a physical manifestation of this belief I have about just hanging in long enough for things to change—“it won’t always be like this”—and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this moment in time and this girl who inhabits it and the objects she keeps as I write a new character not too far afield from who I once was all those years ago.
I’ve owned this coffee grinder for over 20 years now. It’s not a fancy unit: it’s white, cylindrical, you have to wiggle the button just right to get it to go. It’d be easy to upgrade, but I won’t. Not until I have to anyway.
In XO, I wrote—a little bit—about minimalism, about the desire to have my life look a certain way, and then the realization that the objects I’d accumulated were actually making me unhappy. Once upon a time, I gave a lot of stuff away. And that didn’t necessarily make me happy. But giving a great number of objects away opened up this idea of how my life could look different, and I started to follow that idea, and my life changed. It changed hugely, in ways I never would have anticipated, and for this I am (mostly) grateful. For a while it was just me and my van-load of belongings and that was fun, and then I married a maximalist and had some kids and while I still identify as a minimalist no one entering my house would judge me as such. The shape of my life has changed yet again, and the objects I keep tell that story.
In Shinto belief, every object has a spirit. I was reminded of this when reading Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness. A favorite short story that illuminates this belief is Nam Le’s “Hiroshima” (in The Boat). Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” (in the book of the same name) is an exquisite example of how profound an impact objects can have on a person’s life. In a way, our objects make us human. As Westerners, objects play a big role in our lives, maybe even an outsized one. The acquistion, maintenance, and disposal of objects takes up what percentage of your time? How many objects do you have in your home? (If you’ve never tried “The 100 Thing Challenge” you’ve likely never counted; what would it even look like to attempt?) The answers will vary from person to person, but the truth is that we interact with our objects almost as much, and maybe even more than we do other people. What if our objects have kami? What if the philosophical idea of “panpsychism”—that consciousness is a fundamental ingredient of matter all the way down to the atomic level—is correct? How does that possibility change how you interact with the world?
Objects often get short shift in craft discussions. Why is this? I suspect it’s because of writing’s focus on “big” things like character and plot and theme. And these big craft elements are important, of course they are, because they’re what readers are reading for. You’d be hard pressed to find a reader who’d say they’re reading because they’re curious about a story’s objects. But every story is necessarily possessed of (or by) objects: unless you’ve created a character in a vacuum, this character lives in a world and worlds are populated by objects. I am of the opinion that the wrong objects bog down a story, but the right objects elevate it. This isn’t too far off from one of minimalism’s basic tenets: “Consume intentionally.” Is there any better way to describe what we do as writers than to say we intentionally create characters and the worlds they inhabit?
So I’m curious: what objects have your characters intentionally chosen to surround themselves with? What memories—or lack thereof—do these pieces of matter stand in for? How do your characters relate to their objects, and how might that relationship indicate how your characters relate to the world?
Today I got up and fed the cats and brought the kids their milk and then I unwrapped the cord of the coffee grinder and plugged it in. I poured in the beans and I activated the button. For just a moment, as the beans surrended from one form to another, I was filled with a kind of hope. Maybe it’s this—even more than the caffeine—that I’m brewing every morning.
⬆︎⬆︎⬆︎ almost as old as the coffee grinder & not at all impressed by all this shit ⬆︎⬆︎⬆︎