Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

The storehouse of treasures opens by itself. You can take them and use them any way you wish. — Zen koan

Sometime in the 1940s when my mother was growing up, my grandfather had a spontaneous transformation. It happened between lunch and his arrival at the Biltmore Health Club, I think. Something dawned on him. He had been an angry and forbidding person before that, but he changed that day. Everyone could tell. He was never much of a talker and afterwards his only explanation for it was “God is love,” which he repeated quietly, to anyone who’d listen. He had a way of repeating things: old jokes, German words from his childhood. “What’s your favorite flower? Cauliflower!” “Gesundheit!” He wore a gray double-breasted suit and a gray Hamburg hat, carried a tin of hard candy in his pocket, ate the parsley garnish on his coffee shop meals, and drove an Oldsmobile that he traded in every three years.

By the time I arrived in his life he lived upstairs in the main house, while my grandmother lived downstairs. My grandparents’ house was an old-fashioned duplex in Inglewood that my grandfather had designed, Spanish-style in a 1920s Los Angeles way, and the upstairs was an exact replica of downstairs. But it was also completely different. Life was downstairs: craft projects and cooking, laundry, a telephone, the dining room and living room. The museum was upstairs.

My grandfather was a collector. His realm was tidy, almost spartan, and smelled of very old wood and of perfume clinging to shredded silk purses. There were drawers and drawers, built-in and separate, old thread spool cabinets with shallow drawers that slid open to reveal many examples of things in a single category: calling card cases, rings, crosses, polished stones, shells, elephant ivory elephants, lockets with the woven hair of the beloved in them. I can’t imagine now why he started to collect these things. Perhaps it began as something to do with his friend Louie, the antique dealer; maybe he thought his daughters would like them; maybe there was something satisfying about the categories themselves.


For us there must have been a first visit to see his things, my sister and I as little kids, holding our hands clasped behind our backs, looking into the drawers. He would show us things and tell us the story of what they were. At some point he must have decided that he would like to give these things to us as gifts. He presented us each with a lidded segmented Lucite box. They were to be our treasure boxes, and when we came for a visit to his upstairs, we could choose an item that particularly appealed to us and put it into a section of the box. Just one each time. The box stayed there, hidden under a bed, wrapped in tissue, not to come home with us, but the things in it were ours.

Although visiting the things he collected was always magical anyway, the treasure box changed the experience for me. Once I knew I was to get something, I started to feel the way my life lacked certain things. Maybe it even made me notice more acutely the feeling of grayness and difficulty waiting at home. I believed that my life would change if I could bring my grandfather’s museum back with me, along with his caring and soft manner. I couldn’t quite look at the treasures the way I had before because I wanted to choose something important, that he would approve of, not too valuable, so as not to seem greedy, but valuable enough to anchor my childhood somehow. It would make me safe if I could belong in that world of old perfume and wood. It seemed to be a world that moved slowly, at a stately pace, simple even, like my grandfather was simple.

In 1982 I was in college and I heard that my grandfather was in the hospital. He was old, 86, and his heart was giving out. Soon afterwards he died, without much fuss. After his death my relationship to those things changed again. The task became to clear out the house so my grandmother could live someplace simpler. Our job became to find homes for all the stuff. It became stuff. My mother and my aunt got the special pieces, old department store boxes of them wrapped in tissue paper. I’m not sure if I was interested in them anymore. But I told my grandmother to save his tools for me. My grandfather’s tools were beautiful, old, and arcane: tiny pliers, cutters, saws and clamps, little bitty anvils, gold wire. My grandmother and the others who were packing things up gave me other boxes, too, perhaps deciding that they could expand the definition of “tools” to anything that might require tools. So I got boxes and buckets of broken things, too. Broken stick pins, cracked cameos, disintegrating seed pearl necklaces. A seed pearl, if you’ve not seen one, is about the size of a grain of tapioca. With a tiny hold drilled in it. Thousands and thousands of tiny holes drilled by, whom? Strung on old and breaking linen string, so many, so precious, so useless.

The story isn’t over. Now thirty years later I’m still the careless curator of these things from this world that’s gone away, the jetsam which was held back from entropy for awhile by my grandfather. I don’t quite know what to do with these things, and occasionally I have the thought to let them go, but I don’t know who would want them or where to release them. There’s no good place for this stuff, which belongs to another world. The storehouse of treasures opens by itself, I can take them and use them any way I wish. The story isn’t over. I don’t know how to use them. Perhaps right now it’s enough to have the smell of them, the old perfume and wood, when I open the boxes. Perhaps I keep them to remember that I don’t need explanations, don’t need reasons, don’t need to be useful. And so I can feel my grandfather sometimes, and the possibility of transformation for no reason.

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