My friends Gail and Dawn decided to clear out the attic of their 19th century farmhouse this week. Not that it’s been a while, but some of the stuff dates back to the 1930s and a former owner.
Nobody in their family is particularly messy. Their house is roomy, but there are five people living in it. As the youngest gets older, they need to wrestle more elbow room out of somewhere. That they’re clearing the attic in the heat of summer shows just how much they need the space. It’s been in the 90s there this week.
“The boy who lived here before us actually slept up in this attic,” Gail told me. “It was hung from the rafters because there wasn’t a real floor, just some plywood laid down to get on & off the bed and to the head of the ladder. I have no idea how he survived the summers; it is stifling.”
Among the things in the attic are three memento boxes belonging to Gail, her mother and their late friend Cori. I knew Cori, and seeing her memory box choked me up.
“Material culture has a strange connection to the people who own or once owned the objects. The memento boxes are seemingly random collections that are only connected by that individual person. Yet I have my mother’s stuff in mine, she has some of my stuff in hers, and Cori had pictures of me, just as I do of her,” Gail said.
“My great grandmother never wove to my mother’s knowledge, and she never lived in our house, yet there is her loom.” This is one reason historians are so eager to find artifacts; material culture is brutally honest.
There were three boxes of mementos in my father’s closet when he died—my sister’s and my brother’s (who both died in their teens), and my grandmother’s. Of all the things that were dispersed with my parents’ estate, those are the only things I wish I had.
Artifacts reflect their users and creators in ways that we can’t articulate, but that we feel with great urgency. Art works the same way. I teach people how to paint using the exact same method every time, but no two painters will paint the same. Their work will evoke their memory as surely as their photographs will.
So it is, I think, with God—we are created as a reflection of Him, just as the painting I do today will be as much my own personal meditation as it will be about the mud flats at Glen Cove.
The Bible starts with a beautiful and poetic account of the creation of the physical world. God then sent his own son down from heaven to be a corporeal being, a spirit made flesh. To me, that validates creativity as one’s life work. God has shown himself to be intensely interested in material culture, despite arguments to the contrary.