Thursday, September 1, 2011

I collect, therefore I am

Several centuries ago, René Descarte wrote, “I think, therefore I am” (1637), thus laying one of the foundational stones of Western philosophy. Modern thinkers challenge Descartes’ affirmation, in search of a more holistic image of human existence. But approaches to the essence of humanness abound. The Latin American equivalent might be, “I relate, therefore I am.” Some would say that the North American version is, “I consume, therefore I am,” or, for the workaholics among us, “I produce, therefore I am.”

Recently I spent a delightful afternoon with a friend. Gary talked about his writing projects and among them was a reflection on his collections. The idea originally came from an exercise in self-reflection, pondering what the things we collect say about who we are. I found his article fascinating and insightful and decided to do the same exercise myself.

I’ve been a collector all my life. Much of this stuff I no longer own. My stamp collection became too expensive and demanding, so I finally just gave it away. I outgrew the dolls and comic books. But I still collect. And while I don’t really believe my collections define my existence, it’s still an insightful exercise.

I collect heart rocks. Why? Because they’re small, pretty and very inexpensive. And because I love the way they feel in my hands and the way they sound when I tumble them together. And because it’s a bit of a challenge to find them. Whenever I go to the beach I manage to bring home one or two. When a visitor to my home admires my heart rocks (and not everyone even notices them), I invite her to take one home. For keeps, as my grandkids would put it.

I have a wooden bird collection. These come from Bolivia and show both the beauty of Bolivia’s tropical woods and the skills of her craftsmen. My wooden goose accompanies me every day as I work at my computer, reminds me of where I’m from and what I love.

My wooden puzzle collection speaks mainly to my role as a grandmother. The grandkids love these animal puzzles and, although they’re harder than they look to put together, the kids have become quite good at it. These come from Costa Rica, a place I visit frequently as a teacher and have come to love. They represent the colors, creativity, and natural beauty of this place.

Hal and I both collect books and some of our rooms look rather like libraries. We have several categories of books, and my favorite collection, that includes movies as well as books, has to do with stories about cultural values, communication styles, and intercultural relationships. I especially like books and movies produced by the culture they represent. Favorite authors include (among many others) Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan), Ynag Erche Namu (southern China), Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt), Isabel Allende (Chile), Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua), Sandra Cisneros (Hispanic American), Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan (Chinese American), Jung Chang (China) and Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian American). The movies include my favorite, Babette’s Feast (Denmark), The Necessities of Life (Inuit culture), Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Taiwan), and Departures (Japan). There are many more, but you get the idea. This reflects my life as a poet, writer and participant/observer, having lived most of my adult years outside the US.

I collect words. I collect them as favorite poems, some committed to memory. I collect funny (always insightful) things my kids and grandkids have said. I remember interesting conversations (some overheard) and billboards along the highways. I store in my mind words that sound beautiful, funny or interesting, as separate entities or in phrases. I use them when appropriate. Hal and I read good books out loud to each other, partly because we like the sound of the words. When we were reading Jacob Have I Loved (yes, a book for young people), we came across the word lugubrious, and just stopped to admire it, guessing its meaning from the context (and later looking it up). I then wrote this poem in honor of the word:


needs a poem of its own.

Consider the slime and the slink of it,

the slightly sinister wink of its eye

as it peeks from behind potted plants at wakes,

lingers at the altars of Protestant revivals,

or sobs with soap opera heroines.

An irreverent Uriah Heapish word,

a marbles-in-the-mouth sound,

it offers no apologies

for its lumpish singularity.

Some suggestions for everyday use:

--"This piano is lugubriously out of tune."

--"He shed a lugubrious tear

as she passed him the marmalade."

--"This morning at exactly 5:37,

a lugubrious lummox was sighted

at the corner of 11th and Lucerne

in downtown LA. We have investigators

on the scene and will interrupt our broadcast

to bring up-to-date coverage

on this fast-breaking story."

--"Not tonight, dear. I'm feeling lugubrious."

What are some of your collections? What do they reveal about you?


  1. Once again I was compelled to share this blog with both my husband and another friend. Both embody some of the qualities and gifts you so generously and tastefully share. Thank you my dear, dear friend.

  2. And once again, your response encourages me.

  3. I collect fish-bowl cartoons. They fit neatly in a single notebook. Have for years. I like collections because no two are the same, even if the collectors are collecting the same thing. Growing older is a wonderful excuse to filter out tired collections, such as our flying pigs. Its time had come. Mauri has a small small-knife collection. He can't let it get too big; otherwise he couldn't say that phrase. Oh, and then there's our movie collection. That probably doesn't count.

  4. Yes, it does. A movie collection counts. Lots. But the flying pigs intrigue me.