My new job involves sifting the clues of people’s lives.
It is a very calming, meditative occupation. I work through huge tubs of donated items for the business arm of a charity. We then resell the goods donated and the money goes to support the work that the charity does.
This sifting process is amazing, though. Some days as I work through what feels like a world of mysteries unwrapping in my hands, a gentle sea of static washes through my head. I’m free to mentally wander and run free as I trace the curves of czech crystal, cup the heavy roughness of Bendigo pottery and push my fingers into the dark crevices of handbags, digging for gold doubloons.
What I’ve found most entrancing is that I begin to imagine the stories behind the objects I’m handling. Rather than junk or sale items, I regard each lot as a fragile eco-system of nesting and personal history.
A sense of people emerges, more so when I encounter the rare photos album or wallet with pictures. I wonder if these are the souls who owned what I’m holding now, or someone who that person lay next to at night, cared for in some way – or never speaks to anymore.
Deceased estates are sad. The collections of beer mugs and love letters from an old man now gone into the ground; his worship of his wife in 1948 curling gently away from paper and into my misty eyes. I’m assuming my coworkers think I react to the dust and grime. At least, I hope so.
There are the geeks with mismatched china and bins full of computer parts; the women who are clearly so well-presented that their donated clothing and bags are still in excellent condition, but just out of season; there’s the quiet old lady who loves Mother Mary and obscure saints, with a large collection of biscuit tins and half-finished crochet samples floating in between good silver.
I feel such affection for all of them. They don’t know me, but I feel like I know them. I see the effects of their travel – their hand-painted plates from Dunkirk, their commemorative shells from Papua New Guinea and Hawaii, the china thimble from Gloucester.
I marvel at the people who will keep a pair of hair clippers, still new in their box, from the early 60s. There’s a frugality to those collections that I appreciate. It pains me to throw any of their possessions away, knowing how cautious they were in keeping them. Knowing too that it was probably a poverty mentality born of The Great Depression that fuelled it. It hurts me to disrespect that.
I wonder what someone will say of my possessions, one day. Everyone walks through our stuff and cocks their head, taking it in – whether it is because we’ve passed on, or if it is the gaze of a new lover in our bed who sneaks a look at how we’ve decorated, while we run to the loo. People look at the feathers in our nest and think on them.
We’re all anthropologists in this sense – we rush to a new friend’s bookcase, we admire their furniture, we look coolly at their collection of action figurines. We want to see each other’s stuff, get into each other’s landscape.
Perhaps we can’t ever see the whole picture, whether alive or dead – standing close or in my case, very far away.
Imagining another, however, is a wonderful mystery.