Love about relationships -- with things, with people

Jul. 09, 2014 @ 10:34 PM

A few weeks ago our friend Evan sat with me in the kitchen while I rustled up some food.  Evan is a surgeon by day and a weekend potter.  I poured something into a bowl he gave us.

“Oh,” Evan said.  “It is nice to see someone using them.”

I hesitated.  Should we have put Evan’s bowls on display?  The vessels’ colorful glazes would shine from our shelves, but we’d have admired them for a time, and then ignored them.  Items on shelves become a big blur of what is.

We have an earthenware platter that is strikingly beautiful, but the ridges and indentations in its surface clearly indicate, “Don’t cook with me.”  I stopped seeing that piece on the shelf just a few weeks after we set it there.  When I dust, I might pause to admire it, but I don’t love it.

Love is about relationships, and our connections can be with things, as well as people.  Evan made his bowls with exquisite colors and shapes conducive for actual use.  The contour of the blue bowl is perfect for the mashing and mixing that my favorite recipes require.  Our garden produce goes into the red bowl, which is the perfect size and shape for layering and tossing a salad. 

Evan and Peter became friends as very young boys, and sometimes, when they get together or talk on the phone, I wonder if they’ve grown up at all.  They have shared each other’s lives, and been there when others weren’t around.  They have “code words” that can set them off in paroxysms of hilarity.  I’ll come in to find Peter on the phone with Evan, tears streaming down his face from some joke that only the two of them find funny.  Peter tries to explain it to me but, you know, you had to be there.

I consider all these things when I pick up one of the three bowls that Evan made for us.  I think of his beautiful wife, Clare, and their entertaining wedding, at which I officiated and Peter was best man.  I remember the care they gave us through a family illness.  When I tenderly dry the bowls after a meal, it feels like touching the heart of our friendship.

I might drop a bowl, of course, and break it.  We might bump a rim against the sink and crack it, and that would feel like a tragedy.  The bowls would be safer up on the shelf, held in place by metal stands that display them precisely.  But we couldn’t love them up there.

Evan’s bowls have helped me rethink my relationship with our possessions.  Things are so cheap and abundantly available these days that thrift shop shelves bulge with items people cast off, often for reasons of style rather than utility.  We don’t often have lengthy relationships with our things.

A few months ago we needed new potholders and, in the spirit of relationship, I bypassed the grocery store and bought some from a fabric artist.  She isn’t an old friend, like Evan, but is now a new one, and someone I’ll keep up with.  The potholders’ patterns and the feel of quality cotton are pleasing every time I use them. 

In contrast, I ordered a towel rack online that, while attractive enough, has no soul and likely carries the stain of some distant sweatshop.  It is there, in the kitchen, but I tend to cringe when I use it.  Many of our possessions are bound up with the suffering and degradation that went into making them.  There is no relationship with the creators.  These things are hard to love.

So I’ll mash beans in the big blue bowl and pull greasy pans from the oven with the quilted potholders.  They’ll both get washed and dried by my own hands with loving appreciation for the beauty of the items, for the talent of their creators, and for the mud and the fibers that give them earthy substance.  When they chip or tear, I will at least have loved them.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and has served as Executive Director of The Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill and previously of Orange Congregations in Mission in Hillsborough.  Currently she manages a horse barn and a home business on the Orange County farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.

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