Today I’m pushing back against the Marie Kondos of the world who would have you pare down your life to idealized simplicity. Screw that! A lot of things we own don’t bring us joy, but maybe they bring us something else that’s important. Sasha Graybosch, who I met as a student in one of my essay writing classes, has written about this far better than I could in Stuff, the Essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
A talisman is an object believed to hold magical properties and serve as a charm for its possessor. I like that belief is part of the definition. There’s a creative quality to it—the objects we own become infused with meanings that we generate. Probably you have something you couldn’t part with for no rational reason. For me it’s a doll my mother gave me to sleep with when I was a child, which she slept with when she was a child, and which I’ve held onto and now lives in a drawer in my apartment. It’s in pretty bad shape and some people react to it with horror. They don’t see what I see, and vice versa.
Today’s poem and story leave me with the eerie feeling that comes from an encounter with an object that seems to have developed some agency and consciousness of its own. The talisman in the poem is “greeting” those who are gone; the talisman in the story has a mindbogglingly long history related by the narrator to show how it became “a thought that the earth develops over inhuman time.” In both cases these objects take on a mystical or transcendent quality because we know they’ll outlive us.
Marianne Moore and Muhammad Ali
Under a splintered mast,
torn from ship and cast
near her hull,
a stumbling shepherd found
embedded in the ground,
of lapis lazuli,
a scarab of the sea,
with wings spread—
curling its coral feet,
parting its beak to greet
men long dead.
Who is this lady?
Born in Missouri in 1887, Marianne Moore attended Bryn Mawr College and taught in Pennsylvania before moving with her mother to New York City, where she would spend the rest of her life. She worked at the New York Public Library, published multiple volumes of poetry, and edited the literary journal Dial. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award in 1951. She also penned essays and reviews and was a huge sports fan, so much so that she wrote the liner notes for Muhammad Ali’s album, I Am the Greatest! (They also wrote a poem together, which you can read here.) She died in 1972. The Poetry Foundation notes that “her poems often reflect her preoccupation with the relationships between the common and the uncommon.”
The Stone (excerpt)
A stone is, in its own way, a living thing, not a biological being but one with a history far beyond our capacity to understand or even imagine. Basalt is a volcanic rock composed of augite and sometimes plagioclase and magnetite, which says nothing. The wave-worn piece of basalt that the woman had slept with for more than a decade was thrown from a rift in the earth 1.1 billion years ago, which still says nothing. Before she broke it and dumped it at the bottom of a drawer, the stone had been broken time and again. It had been rolled smooth by water and the action of sand. Because of its strange shape, it had been picked up by several human beings in the course of the past ten thousand years. It had been buried with one until a tree had devoured the bones and pulled the stone back out of the ground. It had been kept by a woman who revered it as a household spirit and filled its eyes with sweetgrass. It had been shoved off a dock, lifted back up with a shovel, deposited in a heap. It had surfaced in a girl’s left hand. A stone is a thought that the earth develops over inhuman time. It is a living thing to some cultures and a dead thing to others. This one had been called nimishoomis, or “my grandfather,” and other names, too. The woman had not named the stone. She had thought that naming the stone would be an insult to its ineffable gravity. And yet once she had broken it she set it casually in a drawer with old belts, unmatched socks, pilled sweaters, and stretched-out bras. She had left it there and gone off with a man named Ferdinand, who’d always hated his name and went by Ted.
—Louise Erdrich (Read the rest here)
Who is this lady?
Louise Erdrich was born in 1954 in Minnesota to a German-American father and Chippewa (Ojibwe) mother. She grew up in North Dakota, where her parents taught at a school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and she was one of the first class of women to attend Dartmouth College, where she studied anthropology and was inspired to write about her own background. Her first novel, Love Medicine, set on an Ojibwe reservation, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. She has since published novels, story collections, poetry, children’s books, and non-fiction. Today she lives in Minnesota with her children and owns an independent bookstore.
Write about the object that is most meaningful to you.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to email@example.com