In the eighth chapter of my book, Occupation as a Source of Spirituality, and in an earlier posting done about a year ago, I tell the story of the antique sewing items that I keep in a little chest of drawers in our guest bedroom — crochet hooks, hairpin lace frames, tatting shuttles, darning egg, scissors — all brought to this country from Sweden when my grandparents emigrated in the 1890s. In the book, I make the statement that, “Each time I look over my collection and handle the lovely things brought all the way from Sweden more than a century ago, the women of my family are there with me — my grandmother, my mother, my sister. I understand a little better who they were. I understand a little better who I am.”
The sewing items are “things” in my life, tangible objects that offer me continuity and a sense of connection across generations in my family. As Margrete Sandelowski has stated, objects in our lives are neither mute nor neutral nor silent. She questions the “naive view” of many people that objects are “inanimate and neutral entities that exert no force by themselves in interaction with human users.” Rather, Sandelowski and others see objects in the material world as exerting a social presence in our lives, as physical entities that “embody human goals” and that shape human identities.
My grandmother’s sewing items have definitely shaped my actions and identity; once I had arranged her sewing things into little drawers for display in the guest bedroom, I launched a decade-long (or more!) hunt for other antique sewing items to complement my grandmother’s. Along the way, I gradually acquired other furnishings to display my growing collections — an antique cabinet, originally for spools of thread; a wooden shelf for button cards and a toy sewing machine and thread holders; an inlaid wooden box for needle holders; a drawer from a treadle sewing machine for my collection of tape measures. By this time you are probably rolling your eyes, as did the other person in my household! But so it goes.
Taking us beyond the home setting, Sandelowski relates the meanings of objects to her nursing profession, referring to these profession-related objects as the “material culture of nursing” — ventilators and monitors, imaging films, printouts, patient records — all “things” that are part of clinical nursing practice. I’m a bit daunted when I contemplate the material culture of occupational therapy. Given the huge diversity of our profession — in terms of client populations, places of employment, theoretical approaches, modalities of therapy, occupational therapists’ backgrounds, and on and on — it seems to me that the material culture of our profession is richly complex indeed.
In the home, in the profession — human material culture exists on many levels. Consider, for example, a fascinating book published in 2011, under the sponsorship of the British Museum, with the title, “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” To quote from the introduction, “The book tries to tell a history of the world . . . by deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time . . . It is the things humanity has made, these meticulously shaped sources of history and their often curious journeys across centuries and millennia, which [this book] tries to bring to life.” Telling history through things reflects the book in a nutshell — from a beautifully crafted flint Clovis spear point found in Arizona, USA, dating from circa 11000 BC, to a clay writing tablet from 3100 BC found in southern Iraq, to the mammoth stone statue (1000-1200 AD) from Easter Island, to the early Victorian tea set (1840) from Staffordshire, England.
As compelling as such a world history through objects can be (as I was reading through parts of the book, I had trouble stopping — each object is followed by another that is equally captivating), the “things” in our close-to-home daily life are what I find equally, if not more, fascinating. Turkish novelist and Nobelist Orhan Pamuk says, “We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company or species. . . The future of museums is inside our own homes.” I can almost agree with him. Pamuk has written that the objects in our everyday surroundings function to sustain us, “like the presence of a friend.” His statement makes me think of my mother who lived to be 91 years old and who spent decades of her adulthood (until the last few weeks of her life) in the house she and my father had built. In her last years, I heard her say so many times, in answer to anyone’s question about how she was faring, “Oh, I’m doing all right . . . I’m still in my own home.” In other words, I’m still in the surroundings that sustain me, with the bed that I’ve slept in for over 50 years, in the kitchen that I’ve cooked in for 50 years, with the view of the Baraboo bluffs out the living room window that I’ve enjoyed for 50 years, with the breakfast nook where I’ve eaten my meals for 50 years; I am still who I am, I still have my history around me, I am still at home with the things of my life.
Pamuk has said that, without the memories that are attached to the objects in our lives, the objects are “lonely” To him, that’s why the items in antique stores carry a sense of melancholy — they are forced to “fight for their survival, ingratiating themselves to passers-by on the basis of their charm.” In her article about Pamuk, Brubach says of her own experience in antique stores, “I came to see the cluttered aisles as a way station for objects crying out to be adopted, and I rescued as many as I could. Sometimes I wonder where they’ve been and who loved them first, but I’ll never know.”
So, apart from my grandmother’s sewing things, I wonder where all my other antique sewing items came from? Who loved them first? Where will they go next and who will love them? Or will they be lonely and left crying out for rescue in an antique shop? Perhaps I’ll never know. But I do hold out a glimmer of hope — my youngest granddaughter has shown an enthusiastic interest in my “sewing things” over her ten years. I must remind myself, however, that she is an enthusiastic child by nature. Nevertheless, maybe, just maybe, she will be the next one who keeps and loves these objects that have helped sustain me over the years. .
Brubach, H., “The Right Stuff: Why some objects speak louder than words.” The New York Times, October 7, 2012.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981). The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols of the Self. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ilott, I. (2006). A special occupation: Commissioning an heirloom. Journal of Occupational Science, 13, 145-148.
MacGregor, N. (2011). A History of the World in 100 Objects.
Pamuk, Orhan (2012), The Innocence of Objects.
Sandelowski, M. (2002). Reembodying Qualitative Inquiry. Qualitative Health Research, 12 (1), 104-115.