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Personal Essay: About Growing Up and Chinese Paintbrushes

Perhaps one of the greatest distinctions of the new era of human progress, I believe, is possession. The average person now is the owner of much more, well – stuff, than any time before. People want larger and larger houses; they take loans and cause financial crises just because they need more space for their stuff. Yet if you ask that same average person whether they are wealthy, they will probably laugh. This is so because, in contrast to the past, besides basic needs and various luxuries, people have started storing more and more objects of no monetary value; tokens of happy memories, symbols of personal importance, in general – any object of no obvious use, whose owner has particular trouble disposing of. People keep coins, medallions, toys, stones – all sorts of “stuff”; I keep a paintbrush.

Indeed, to this very day I have an old, Chinese, probably fake paintbrush that I will never throw away. It is wooden, brownish and battered; the selective bush of hairs left on top of it is crooked, scarce, and dried up like desert vegetation. There are three Chinese hieroglyphs (once red, now merely carved) imprinted on the brush; I never knew their meaning, so sometimes we made jokes with my friends about what could they mean, other times I secretly dreamed about different, deeply symbolic translations of the mystical signs, but if I have to be honest, I realize very well that most probably the hieroglyphs just mean “Made in China”. In other words, for years now I have kept and cared about an object, which will not look oddly to anyone in a trash can. Nevertheless, for me it is everything but “just” a brush.

As time flew by and I gradually stopped drawing, first I hugged the basketball; then, I took the skateboard, then the guitar and so on, until I realized I’d thrown away all of my drawing utensils. For a long while I wandered why is it, that I do not throw away this particular Chinese brush. Finally, I remembered; it was the first object I bought for myself, with my own saved snack money for the day. I was eight, and I wanted to grow up to be a famous painter so much… Thus, this paintbrush stuck around. Gradually, it became the embodiment of my determination to never give up my childish wishes, my childhood plans for myself. However, by this I didn’t mean to commemorate my firm determination to become a painter. On the contrary, I do not find the dissolving of this firm determination as something wrong. I kept the brush merely to always remember the first time in my life I had a big dream that I turned into a goal and acted upon.

In general, keeping a symbol of one’s childhood dream is not uncommon. Typically, this type of symbolism could directly be translated to the value of perseverance, determinism, and, above all, dedication to the specific dream (typically a profession or occupation). However, I attribute to my brush a significantly different set of values. First of all, from the bottom of my heart I sincerely have not wanted to become a painter for a long time now. I stopped drawing completely at the age of 11 and do not regret it. My symbol is a level more symbolic, so to say. For me, my brush rather represents pro-activeness, entrepreneurism, and industriousness – the values I unwarily stamped on my character when, for the first time, I decided to invest in my future instead of my candy bar and coke. However, most of all, the brush symbolizes my own solid belief in my future self – one of the guiding structural values in my life.

Summing up, it is my deep belief that people do need a few special objects that are monetary-wise worthless to everyone else but are a token of a memory, a dream, a belief, or a set of values for themselves. I am also deeply convinced that symbolic possessions make up just as important part of people’s “stuff” as do necessary and luxury items. Thus, I have kept a cheap, old, completely useless Chinese paintbrush for about a decade already, I believe, for a good reason. I plan to keep it and move it as I change homes as long as it is still a “valid” symbol; that is, simply as long as I see myself as a driven, entrepreneurial, industrious person. I hope this means forever. As Ralph W. Emerson once put it, “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. … We are symbols, and inhabit symbols. We are wiser than we know.”

June 28, 2012Tags: