In the arrogance of youth, I once remarked to a science teacher that science had yet to explain the wind. He replied with a not overly detailed but thorough explanation of basic meteorology. The distortions of the atmosphere, responding to tectonic movement, create the wind. So as the earth creaks and bulges to contain its own pressures, the windows of my house follow suit. I’m thinking about that, as an unseasonal tempest outside rattles said windows, and strips the beautiful, trumpet like purple flower petals off my empress tree.
I didn’t always think of it as “my empress tree.” Before it bloomed, I considered it a rather ugly addition to my property, and a potential litigious trap: the roots are pushing up the sidewalk; if someone trips and falls, I could be in trouble. In those days, of distrust and distaste, I thought of it as “that tree out front” or simply, “the tree.” I didn’t even bother to identify its species until the week the flowers appeared. Its name only appeared when it became beautiful. So too, the genitive “My empress.”
I have always cherished my relationship to beautiful, precious things. For many years and in many cases, simply being in relationship, knowing that such a thing was in the same world as me, has been enough. To know where the Mona Lisa is in relative distance to oneself, to see the Chrysler building in the skyline, to peer through glass at the folios of Shakespeare; that suffices. That fulfills.
But sometimes I need to possess an object, be possessed by it. So collecting begins. I won’t say much about the theory of collecting. If you’ve read “Unpacking My Library” by Walter Benjamin, he comes very close to a capital-T Truth on the nature of the collector. But deep within the mysterious relationship between person and object, I hope to still find something to say.
When I was a child I’d collect playing cards and fortune cookie fortunes, circuit boards and tchotchkes. A child’s collecting, like much of a child’s life, is about exploring and differentiating. I wanted to know the wide world of the objects I collected, and I wanted these objects to set me and themselves apart from the other objects around me. My mother, herself an avid collector, encouraged me to read about my objects, to learn how to seek them out in odd corners and memorable places. So books became added to my collections. Books about beetles, about history, about books. My knowledge of the world blossomed through my knowledge of the items around me. The world was explored as it entered my little room by the stairs.
Differentiation, the process by which my objects would set me apart, and my interest in them would mark them as special, proved trickier. My mother’s patronage had a price. Anything that took up space in her house, bought with her or my father’s money, was, by her accounting, hers to do with as she wished. I could defend my possessions while I lived with them, but when I left home at 16, I learned the great grief of the collector, bereft of his collection, starting from scratch.
Even in adulthood, to differentiate my individual self by my objects, while building collections of clothes, books, shoes, chess sets, records, has been difficult. Due to my ongoing struggles with debilitating anxiety and depression, I don’t work. My father and mother provide me with a generous allowance on which I live. A pleasant problem to have, and you are right. I am very blessed and lucky. But what, precisely, do I own, bought, as it is, with my father’s money?
Perhaps this is why I prefer the neutral grammatical descriptor “genitive” over the more capitalistic “possessive.” When I speak of my tree and my house (a mortgage my father cosigned) and my books and my records (bought with my parents’ money) or my clothes (gifts from my mother), am I truly in possession of any of them? Or am I simply in relation to these objects, that swirl around me in an intimate way?
In any case, I’ve just had to make some big decisions for “My empress.” Over the summer, she has grown bushy and inconvenient. Her shade starves the grass and flowers in my front yard. Her branches makes walkers on the sidewalk duck. So I’m getting men in to cut those branches, strip them, open up a little more air.
What do I owe this tree? What does this tree owe me? I trim it back, it lives another day. I collect it, in the sense that it is one of my things, a bauble I have control over. Or perhaps I collect it, in the sense of “collect your relatives.” I call it back, I rein it in, I am in relationship to it and when it is out of line, I need to do something.
And then there is one more way it is mine. As I look out over the tree in its splendid morning light, it is golden and emerald, it is shady and glorious. Perhaps it reproaches me for shaving off a branch or two here or there. But it defines my house in its regal bearing, its preening branches. I am its, as much as it is mine. It reigns supreme over me. My empress.