“Nothing ever exists entirely alone. Everything is in relation to everything else.”
“Indeed, my heart found pleasure from the results of my hard work; that was the reward from all my hard work. But when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had worked so hard to achieve, I realized that it was pointless—a chasing after wind.”
– Ecclesiastes 2:10-11
Almost two years ago we had to move my physically disabled mother away from her home, across four state lines and into an assisted living facility closer to our family. It was a hard move, and one thing that made it harder was that it had to happen in stages. There was no way to move most of her old furniture with her, and because this is an inherently temporary situation we did the most sensible and economical thing we could conjure and ordered a room full of flat-pack furniture.
Yesterday I was complaining about that furniture and my wife called me out on my elitism. She was right. No one is ever going to inherit this furniture. When it’s gone it’s gone and that’s all there is to it. It was what she could afford and it solved all of the problems it was designed to solve. I had to admit that while would never design and build furniture like this, in my time of need it was there for me.
What can I say. It’s complicated.
What complicates matters more is that in my rebellion against consumer culture one question always lingers in the back of my mind:
“Is a thing permanent because it is made that way, or because it is treated that way?”
This box was originally intended as a packing box for yeast. The box itself is nothing special in comparison to other such boxes, but it struck me this morning that we don’t pack things this way anymore. At least not things like yeast.
The box is a simple finger-jointed affair with a nailed on bottom, leather straps and a wire snipe hook latch. The leather strap hinges and the latch were, I suspect, a later addition. It is most likely that the top was tacked on for shipment, removed, and then the box was re-purposed for storage.
We post-moderns flatter ourselves by thinking that up-cycling is a new idea.
That alongside the fact that virtually every other surviving example of this box I can find either still has its lid tacked on or is missing a lid entirely.
This box was made as packaging and display in the early 20th century and here it is, still surviving in the early 21st and being used regularly by its owner (not me) as storage for stationary.
So the question is a live one: “Is a thing permanent because it is made that way, or because it is treated that way?”
Certainly this little box was made better than most packing and display boxes today, and that went a long way to it surviving this long, but it was meant to be disposable. This box has survived in service for nearly a century because someone saw value in it and took care to preserve and even enhance that value.
It is sometimes a struggle for me to rage against the mass-produced-flat-pack machine without veering into elitism. I know this about myself. I start using subjective words like “better” and “cheap” when I would be better served by weighing the utility of a thing in its wider context and asking how I can make my own work better without “othering” and denigrating. I need to learn to say what my work is without categorizing it by what it isnt.
At the end of the day, it would be fair to say that the works of my hands will become dust as well. I just work so that it takes a lot longer for them to become so.