What re­ally mat­ters in the face of dis­as­ter

Pos­ses­sions can be re­placed, but not peo­ple, writes Kath­leen Parker.

Calgary Herald - - EDITORIAL - Kath­leen Parker is a colum­nist for the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

PAW LEYS ISL A ND, S.C. Tues­day morn­ing, I did what mil­lions of peo­ple have done in hun­dreds of places for cen­turies. I picked the few favourite 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 neigh­bour 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 blackand-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 three-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 es­thete’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.

Wind­ing along South Carolina’s blue high­ways, first light re­vealed a dense, ground fog. I tried to make out the fa­mil­iar shapes of hay­bales that dot the fields in for­ma­tions that seem both ran­dom and in­ten­tional — a field mouse’s Stone­henge, per­haps. Other land­marks greeted my pas­sage — an espe­cially pretty church, a se­ries of canopied drives lead­ing to well-kempt farm­houses; a dis­tressed aban­doned barn.

Think­ing of hurricane Florence as she am­bled to­ward the Carolina coast­line, my senses seemed more at­tuned to de­tails that I tried my darnedest 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 Don­ald Trump was speak­ing in Shanksville, Pa., 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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