This week while granddaughter Hailey and I were on slug patrol in the garden, she found a mini-potato that got away when I harvested. “It’s a baby,” she told me. “It got lost from its mama.” Pointing to the ginko tree above us—“that’s its mama.” Then she looked doubtful, since there isn’t a lot of family resemblance between a ginko and a spud. In Hailey’s world, any small version of a bigger thing is a baby. She puts her capital and lower-case letter magnets together on the fridge so they won’t miss each other and be sad, and she worries about the ones that don’t look alike—such as Q and q—because they don’t fit the pattern.
This got me thinking about the scope of human ability to anthropomorphize. I buy my olive oil and tamari in bulk, and I have been using the same two bottles for at least a decade. They still have their increasingly faded original labels, but other than that they are just plain old glass jars. But I realized the other day while washing out the tamari bottle that, like Hailey, I am busy generalizing in ways that don’t always make sense. I feel affection for that piece of glass. It’s been a partner in hundreds of meals and I like having it around. I would be sad, at least briefly, if I lost or broke it. I’ve read a lot about people who hoard compulsively. Some of them collect objects from dumpsters because they feel sorry for them. Or they can’t throw away a worn-out shirt because they don’t want to hurt its feelings.
That’s crazy thinking. Those of us who have experienced hoarding up close know that worrying about the feelings of old clothes is more likely to create a festering, moldy mess than a closet full of cheerful Disney-style clothing, murmuring affirmations behind the door. (Well, the clothes may indeed be alive, but not in a good way.) Still, those crazy thoughts spring from the same epiphanies that lead—I hope--to wiser choices. John Muir wrote: “Anything you pick up, you find the whole universe is attached.” I have that quote on my wall, in my dad’s handwriting, because it reminds me of his habit of collecting quotes and phrases he liked, and because it reminds me to pay attention as I pick up and then toss away pieces of this universe. I also like another quote that is supposed to come from Northwest potlatch culture: “the gift must always move.” Maybe I’ll put that one up too, to remind me that we don’t always serve our attachments best by hanging on to them. But I’m keeping those bottles.