Last night at dusk I went out to turn off a backyard sprinkler and noticed a broken garden plaque that lay among fallen leaves and plums. It’s been there for quite some time, one of those objects I don’t know what to do with but like too much to throw away, so I leave it where it lies. Last night, in the twilight, I noticed it.
A phrase sprang to mind: “You look for the artifacts of their ambitions.” This is the first line in Michael Koryta’s superb supernatural thriller, So Cold the River. The main character goes on to say, “The reality of someone’s heart lay in the objects of their desires. Whether those things were achieved did not matter nearly so much as what they had been.”
The plaque was a primitive image of the sun – the word “SOL” is still visible. We got it in Mendocino a long time ago and hung it on the fence at a time when gardening was one of our major activities. Its importance waned under the time pressures that came with more “gainful” employment,” but this little artifact, like a Velveteen Rabbit made out of stone, can still speak when I stop to listen.
After I snapped this photograph, I went looking for other such artifacts, both in a box of old pictures of mine and among vintage postcards, photos, and tintypes I’ve collected. If you are a packrat like me, you surround yourself with such things.
Dreams change, and ambitions, just like our lives, can be fleeting. The artifacts often outlive them. Nothing shows that more clearly than this picture of my father, my sister, and me by a stone wall I helped build.
The Kodachrome is fading and my father is gone, but not long ago, I checked Google’s satellite view, and that stone retaining wall, some 3,000 miles from where I now live, still appears to be standing. How can you even begin to say what it means when you’re five and your father shows you how to place stones in a wall and trowel the concrete into place between them? “The reality of someone’s heart lay in the object of their desires.”
I’ve always liked this team photo, with its mix of bravado and shyness in front of the camera. Did any of these boys of summer dream of playing in the majors? Did any of them come close? Did they love the game any less than the 2013 all stars who played in front of millions of viewers last week? I’m guessing that at the moment this picture was taken, they may have loved it more.
What about the fellow in the foreground of this stereopticon slide? Do we even want to know about his ambitions? Close up, he looks like Groucho Marx in a yellow hat. The picture is labelled “Surf, Sand, and Fun, Atlantic City, NJ.”
This is a poignant image, from a photo I took of an arrangement in a glass box, embedded in a gravestone in an old Italian cemetery in Binghamton, NY. Virgin Mary stands amid plastic roses, her image distorted by thick old glass. I spent a summer there working in a factory, and returned again and again to this cemetery, which was full of angels and lambs and redeemers, for don’t these all speak of a nearly universal ambition – the longing for redemption, in the here, the hereafter, or both? The world is alive and things within it can speak to us if we listen.
And finally, one of my more important artifacts. I kept this photo of a young 19th century woman over my desk while writing my first novel. This, I thought, was how the book’s heroine would have looked if she’d posed for a picture. So this photograph, taken more than a hundred years ago, of a woman whose dreams I cannot begin to fathom, became an icon for one of my own ambitions.
I didn’t tell her story very well, but as the character in So Cold the River observes, that often doesn’t matter. Sometimes when I look at this picture now, it holds a greater mystery than it ever did when I used it as a writer’s prompt. Now I can see its own inscrutable mystery.
James Hillman often quoted John Keats who said, “Call the world if you please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.” In the same letter to his brother and sister, Keats added that our pains and troubles “school an Intelligence and make it a Soul.”
Artifacts of our ambitions are things we notice as the eyes of soul begin to open.