What object without inherent beauty or aesthetic importance has a deep and abiding significance for you? What do you treasure that nobody else would look at twice?
I have a black plastic shift key from an old electric typewriter on the bookcase above my computer at home. I’m staring at it as I write. To you it would look like nothing except a piece of junk, but to me it means a great deal. I’ve had it since 1982, from the days when I was living in a ground-floor apartment at the back of an old, squat brick building in New York’s Lower East Side.
I was renting a studio apartment. It was 423 square feet with a bathroom so small even women stood up to pee and a kitchen consisting of an Easy-Bake Oven. The only thing of value I owned was a used electric typewriter. One night, I returned to discover that my window was smashed. Because there were bars on it, I knew no one could get in but apparently the thieves were desperate enough to have broken the glass behind the bars, reached in, and maneuvered the typewriter out.
The only part left of my prized possession was the shift key, which had apparently broken off the keyboard. I put it in the pocket of my winter coat, which I kept wearing until the super of the building came down to assess the damage, the police came to file a report and I phoned a girlfriend to take me in for the night. The shift key reminds me of tougher times I endured, of the many shifts in life and fortune as well as of the need to shift into a different mode when circumstances necessitate. I don’t see it as a lucky charm – it wasn’t a lucky night – yet it remains a key to my past and to my character.
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Traditional treasures we can recognize: We all understand why somebody would keep a favorite stuffed toy from childhood or a grandmother’s rosary beads. But most of us have some quirky fetish object that’s more complicated and difficult to explain.
My friend Chris Taylor talks about a fuse he has from a late 1980s VW, which is not something that would automatically score big if offered on eBay. But for Chris, its worth is inestimable. “I found it on the floor of my then girlfriend’s – now wife’s – VW while we were saying our goodbyes as I headed to college,” Chris said. “I gave it to her with a story as a keepsake, and more than 30 years later we still have it.”
If I found a fuse in a place of honor in someone’s home, it would be like finding a piece of a puzzle without knowing what the picture is – which is exactly what happened to my dear friend Barbara Cooley when she found, long after his death, a single puzzle piece that belonged to her father. “I had many unanswered questions about my father,” said Barbara. “It was mesmerizing and I kept trying to imagine the puzzle it belonged to, wondering why he kept it and what it symbolized to him. Ultimately, I realized I had enough unanswered questions in my own life and that my father had taken his secrets with him. I threw it away; the puzzle was solved.”
These objects have no essential power, but they are storehouses of meaning for their owners because they conjure memories, insights and emotions. Without the context it’s meaningless. With the context it’s everything.
So ask yourself: What have you carried with you, protected and cherished, that needs an interpretation to be understood, that cries out for a story or translation from some long-ago moment in your personal history to make sense to anyone else? That singular object most distinctly tells your life story.