Sunday, March 14, 2021

Objects of life #6 Puzzle

A puzzle resolved?

You should bring an object with a strong emotional connection, said the preparatory notes to a writing class I attended last week. If you can't have it to hand, then one you can hold in your mind's eye; something you can feel, in every sense of the word. Had it not been an online class, I might have prepared more fully—instead, I reached instinctively to the drawers of my desk where the puzzle resides.

As it has for more than forty years.  

I'm not exactly sure when I acquired it, but it must have been around my early teens—and it was a Christmas present, I know that. Or at least I do in the sense that it's my fixed, if often fallible, memory, rather than in any evidential proof: the puzzle isn't the sort of item you'd be holding in a photograph, and as it's spent most of the last five decades in the dark it hasn't even faded with age.

Describe your object, the tutor said: square, smart, controlled—circles and hoops—patterns and archways— click, rattle roll...  And then the emotions it holds, she continued...

Anyone who's attended a writing workshop will recognise these sorts of exercises. I'm not very good at them—the speed at which we're expected to respond is too quick for my liking. Often, to be honest, they're a bit 'touchy feely'—and there's always, lurking in my mind, the fear of what I call the curse of the workshop genre: snippets that are seldom as deep as we believe at the time.

Yet, when I look back at my notes, I'm struck by the viscerality of what's on the page: I love it actually,  I love it a lot—a little square box of my childhood—controlled, calm—better and different to others—the 'winning position', it says on the back...


I don't know what forces drove me to write that, and to underline it too. 

The puzzle was merely a stocking present—I doubt anyone else in my family would remember it, or knew how much I liked it at the time. It's a solid little item, and as a young boy it felt like I owned something rather sophisticated. I was good at solving it too—skilled at the deft nudges and delicate balance it requires. At that age, I used to nurture the idea of everything being controlled and ordered, of having a desk, and an office... and handwriting that was neater than my father's...  

How odd is that?

The person I feared most in the world, controlled through a plastic puzzle? Is that what psychologists—psychiatrists even—might say of my holding onto it? For all they might, I wasn't conscious of that then, nor have I been all these years. The puzzle is just a present that felt smart (a word I used repeatedly in my notes) and which by some random happenstance I never threw out... 

And so it's stayed with me through college and jobs and houses and children... all the hoops and circles of my life and the lives that have mattered to me. Is it possible that sometimes the objects we hold onto have meaning simply because we've done just that? That their significance grows in direct proportion to their age—as if by discarding them we would be forsaking our past? 

The artist Michael Landy has long fascinated me—in a performance piece titled Break Down he famously destroyed every object he owned, including his passport and keys. The shredding of a painting by Gary Hume, a fellow Young British Artist, was a talking point at the time. But it was the destruction of his childhood toys, and his father's sheepskin coat, that brought me close to tears. It has always struck me as unspeakably brave.  

I sometimes wonder what will happen to the objects around me when I'm dead. Any significance attached to the puzzle rests with me, not those who will sort through my drawers. Most likely, they'll find some items of sentimental value—but who wants a collection of moths, or the detritus of a life that's run its course? I wouldn't want that from my forefathers.

That said, there are a few small heirlooms I keep; my grandfather's prayer book; a golden cravat pin; a clip that's shaped like a fish. Will the next generation—or the one which follows— care, or even know of their heritage?  Entropy must always increase with time.

We know that objects can only ever be a proxy for a past that must eventually be lost. We know too, that real life isn't like my puzzle—that it's not controlled, or always smart, or never fading with age... and that any so-called winning position—no matter how deftly nudged or delicately balanced—cannot be held indefinitely. The square box that sits on my desk is waiting to be shaken once more; to be re-solved (resolved?) in a way that's necessarily different to what went before.

It's a puzzle. 

But I love it—I love it a lot—and I can hold it in my hand as well as my mind's eye. 

A good choice for the class, after all.


  1. A very thought provoking post. I keep some of my late parents objects because they liked them and because there is still a visible connection to them.

  2. Mark, i have a Chinese inkwell that belonged to some distant past relative. I value it because to me it denotes memories of my grandmother's home. For my father it represented his grandmother. If i am to pass it on it will only NOT be a burden on the inheritor if it (and Ì) have some meaning to them. No family member younger than me knew its previous caretakers so they shouldn't be expected to value it simply because it has been handed down a lot. The token is only what the current holder makes it.

  3. Like you I often think of what will happen to things of mine one day, When it feels right for me, as it occasionally does, I take action and do with things what I want to do rather than leave them for somebody else to deal with.

  4. I have very few sentimental items and every time we move house I get rid of clutter. Only stuff I have are my grandmother's prayer book and a wristwatch that doesn't work.