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The Ordinary Artifacts of Everyday Life

Because we are human, we have our frailties. One of mine is that it is hard to imagine the world without me in it, a world in which I am not taking up some amount of space along with the things, the stuff that mean something to me. That's not uncommon and maybe it is also not uncommon that it comes to mind more than occasionally.

It's been like that with me even when I was young but it happens more frequently now as my age makes it impossible to ignore the fact that the day approaches when I will be gone.

Often it is the objects of my life that occasion these thoughts - favorite items, ordinary stuff I use around the house, that cause me to contemplate my not too distant fate and their fate too: how they will be hauled off to a dump after the better part of a lifetime of good and useful service.

A cast-iron frying pan. Nothing fancy and not particularly large, eight or nine inches, bought when I lived in my first apartment at age 16. Other pans have come and gone, scratched, worn out or damaged in some other way. But this one is as good as it was on the first day, almost 60 years ago.

My sofa has been with me for about 35 years and it is much older than that. A friend found it at the Salvation Army and telephoned me to get there before someone else bought it. It was perfect, she said, for my then-new apartment and she was right.

Carved, wooden frame and front arm panels, obviously an antique that was newly reupholstered when I bought it for $250. Many friends have slept on that sofa; all have praised its comfort as well as its beauty. It pleases me as much to look at it from a chair across the room as to sit or lie on it to read or contemplate my ultimate destiny.

A younger everyday object is my dining room sideboard that was new, made just for me, in the mid-1990s. My friend Neil Thompson built it to fit into a uneven setback in the wall next to my desk in New York City - an odd, trapezoid space duplicated in this personalized piece of furniture. Who will know the reason for it's peculiar shape when I am gone.

There are some other things whose little stories from one person's life, like these, will die with me. Until then, in their daily ordinariness after so many years with me, they are old friends. They help hold together the continuity of my years and give me pleasure still to see and use.

This came to mind a few days ago when I was perusing an old book of poems by U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, one that I may not have opened in a decade.

We are the same age, Collins and me – he is just two weeks older than I. Sometimes to read him is to feel that he can see into my mind, maybe even my soul, but I know he speaks as much for others too.

This is from his collection, Questions About Angels, published in 1991. You will easily see why it brought today's little anecdotes to mind – and he says it so much more elegantly than I.

There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,
to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,
or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint's bone.

It is enough to realize that every common object
in this sunny little room will outlive me -
the carpet, radio, bookstand and rocker.

Not one of these things will attend my burial,
not even this dented goosenecked lamp
with its steady benediction of light,

though I could put worse things in my mind
than the image of it waddling across the cemetery
like an old servant, dragging the tail of its cord,
the small circle of mourners parting to make room.