Things left behind

PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. — Tuesday morning, I did what millions of people have done in hundreds of places for centuries. I picked the few favorite items that I could take with me before abandoning my home to the fates of an impending disaster.

They’re only things, I told myself. Which, intellectually, we know to be true. But emotionally, we become attached to our things, and I confess to this material weakness. I don’t just own things, as one owns a sofa. I collect things of beauty, utility being the least of my concerns.

That said, if I may share, my approach to collecting is strictly passive. Meaning, I don’t seek things out but instead wait for them to find me. I’d rather do without than invite the ordinary into my cave.

Lamps are a particular weakness of mine. Indeed, a former longtime neighbor has promised that when he delivers my eulogy, he’ll carry a lamp to the lectern. He claims that every time he looked out his window, I was walking down the sidewalk with a lamp. Despite an inarguable surfeit of tabletop fixtures, an antique black-and-white lamp recently whistled a catcall as I strolled past and I married it on the spot. Intended for a desk, it’s shaped from metal in the form of an elephant. The base is indented with spaces for a fountain pen, pencil and a small bottle of ink. Did I need such a folly? Absolutely not. Do I adore it? Immensely.

Among other treasures I left behind: a Plaster-of-Paris torso of my then-10-year-old son; a 3-foot tall, white porcelain Baby Bacchus; a large painting of a blond woman wearing red glasses, sitting on a beach. These small accoutrements to an aesthete’s life are irreplaceable — sui generis. But, then, they really are just things, I told myself as I drove inland in the pre-dawn darkness toward the higher ground of our family home in Camden.

Thinking of Hurricane Florence as she ambled toward the Carolina coastline, my senses seemed more attuned to details that I tried my darned-est to memorize. I turned on the radio to catch the latest and only then realized what day it was — Sept. 11. Was it possible that 17 years had passed? Goes to show: Tempus fugit, no matter what you’re doing.

The juxtaposition of the storm and the terrorist attack gave me a few kernels for thought, which, given the demands of the day, I managed to expand into the providential. My headlights had just skimmed a roadside sign with hand-lettering that said: “Pray for our Country.”

I hadn’t noticed it before. South Carolina’s rural roads mostly feature crosses to mark the spots where loved ones have died in auto accidents, or placards that say, “Jesus Saves.” I keep meaning to stop and photograph them, but for various reasons never do. Next time, I tell myself.

Finally, the day’s eyes are wide open. I arrived in Camden, went to my office and turned on the small TV set that sits on my desk. President Trump was speaking in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 went down. For the passengers who sacrificed themselves so that others might live, there was no next time. Suddenly, my beautiful things embarrassed me. Neither those who died nor the survivors fret over the things left behind, of that much I’m certain. Only people (and their dogs) matter — the living, breathing, loving, grieving — and the dying.

Certain things cannot be replaced, and I’ll be sad if destruction and loss visit me this week. But ultimately, things are ornaments to our mortality, touchstones that affirm our reality and protect us, however briefly, from the alternative of no-thing. Coincidentally, my husband recently texted me this quote from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “We have art in order not to die of the truth.”

When Florence finishes with us, human need necessarily will displace the longing for our lost things. But in their stead, we may rejoice in the beauty of the human spirit, which, ever resilient, will get back to the business of art in good time.

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