The most routine activities and commonplace objects can keep us healthy and happy. Tessa Lloyd explores why this may be for TWSS Issue 15.
The things that constitute the ‘Everyday’ for an individual are made up of innumerable objects and actions – aspects of our lives that, most of the time, we barely notice. The Everyday, if we’re lucky, is beautifully mundane, facilitated by the cultural and personal routines we’ve established for ourselves.
Within our own private worlds, some objects will be used for leisure, some are necessary for acts like eating or exercising, and some are perhaps valued for their sentimentality, rather than any utility. The likelihood is that we rarely think about how and why we value these things, and often their value only becomes truly apparent when decontextualized, or removed altogether. Even if we choose to break from routine, or to uproot ourselves, we can selectively bring along the objects that we feel are integral to us and our experiences.
Consider the way in which a plastic bottle floating in the sea can be representative of our wider environmental problems – or how specific childhood toys can evoke so much emotion. Tamagotchi just released a twenty-first-century upgrade to their iconic toy, and because there have been such technological advancements since the initial distributions in the noughties, its success as a product will lie predominantly in its sentimentality. Many objects set off feelings because of the people, experiences or concerns that they represent. They might evoke feelings of calm, of happiness, of negativity. Proust wrote that “We think we no longer love the dead because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.” This phenomenon is not limited to any particular culture – every person across the world, irrespective of gender, culture or race, will have their own private mundane rituals, and their own everyday objects that have particular personal connotations.
On this basis, it’s unsurprising that photographic campaigns of disasters or iconic events so often focus on singular objects. They show toothbrushes, a child’s teddy, a set of books; the power of these photographs lies in the familiarity of the objects depicted. In the teddy, we see our own childhood toy, in the clothes we see our clothes. People are humanised through mundane objects. Our emotional responses are activated; the object unites us with the anonymous users because it reminds us that we are the same.
When a person is displaced, circumstances often prevent much packing, and so most of the ‘things’ that help hone their identity are abruptly severed from them. To remember who you are and where you come from is significantly more difficult without the visual and physical cues that exist all around us in our everyday lives. A cultural identity is constructed over centuries, influenced by experiences both significant and near incidental. As such, when a person is displaced without the things that facilitate their identity, their sense of self is compromised.
Many of us have a cup of coffee every day. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary; often it’s an opportunity to meet with friends or to relax. The apparently trivial cup becomes, in reality, intrinsic to our sense of calm and happiness. Its mundanity facilitates our normality. In many cultures, the preparation and drinking of coffee is near-ceremonious, and similarly essential to social occasions. In some countries, such as Ethiopia – the heartland of coffee-drinking – the process of a coffee ceremony is ornate, with specifically designated utensils and an elaborate structure. Such routines, facilitated by everyday objects, also often reflect many of the gendered and social constructs to be found within the wider society.
But when a person is forcibly or circumstantially severed from their home, many of the features necessary to the ritualised performance will be lost. How can the coffee be made without the cups or the beans? Who will take the place in the ceremony that a mother once took, or a brother, or a friend? Maybe the entire process is too emotional to perform without loved ones’ presences.
The coffee ritual is just one small example of the way in which experiences that are ‘Everyday’ to a given culture can become endowed with immense value once removed. Communal activities like these are utterly ingrained in the collective consciousness of a given community, and are therefore vital to the reconstruction of that society, even when displaced.
Even if people do find the courage or practical equipment to re-enact parts of their ‘everyday’ lives, one of the central ways in which anti-refugee groups or authorities continue to dehumanise people is through the removal or destruction of familiar objects. It’s well known that in the Calais ‘jungle’, French police systematically ruin the belongings of people seeking asylum. This manipulative act is designed to disrupt familiarity and normality. The deliberate destruction of personal possessions borders on psychological abuse – when objects are removed, the routines and structures facilitated by that object are simultaneously destroyed. This is why art therapy projects so often focus on dealing with objects, enabling the participants to reconstruct, whether literally or figuratively, the things that used to be integral to their identity. People must process not only the loss of such things but the loss of the part of themselves that was enabled by the inanimate items.
Cruel acts like the destruction of personal property must be expressly forbidden by authorities or other groups, for people cannot thrive, and cannot be themselves, without a sense of normalcy. Displaced individuals must be allowed – and encouraged – to bring the old ‘everyday’ into the new.
Illustrations by Rosa Stevens.