Last weekend Andy and I went with our friend Shelly (who is the generous, patient angel who makes my crazy web site ideas turn into actual web site pages) to a little button sale. Shelly is an avid button collector, and does extremely cool things with buttons that I will show you when she gets her web site all the way she wants it. She belongs to the local button society (I think that's what it is) and invited us to attend a little gathering of button ladies at a suburban hotel on Sunday. Andy and I were gonna just hang out together, because it's so rare that we actually have a weekend-day off together, but I thought the button thing sounded like fun so he came with. Shelly and I sidled around looking at old buttons and within a half-hour Andy was already holding court at a table in the back surrounded by a crowd of older ladies, all telling him their medical histories and showing him their buttons. Predictably, he was having quite a fine time. He got some cool Portland and Chicago police buttons so we all went home happy.
There is something so essentially optimistic about having a collection, any kind of collection. I find such little gatherings of like-minded souls very touching. When we arrived, a bit early, the ladies were all still eating the strawberry cake that was the dessert part of their luncheon, sitting at their little tables. After the lunch, they brought out the buttons they wanted to swap or sell, and many of them were on pieces of tagboard, all carefully labeled with tiny handwriting. The cards were incredible in their detail, and arrangement. I spent most of my time at the "poke boxes," which are boxes of buttons for a quarter or so, and you just dig through and pick out the ones you like. Everyone was so nice, and it was so relaxing, listening to them talk buttons. It's a topic I don't know a thing about, but, you know, buttons themselves are pretty darn charming whether you know anything about them or not. I made these (and there are more here on the site) from what I got there.
I thought about all the little "societies" having luncheons at that very moment, all over the world. It is so easy to watch the evening news and feel hopeless. In the face of such daily terrors and troubles, how could it matter, to care about something so small (or big, or weird, or purple, or whatever it is that turns you on)? To say "This is important to me. I care about it enough to keep it nice, and label it carefully, and share it with you" seems such a sweet, hopeful, distinctively human thing to do that I couldn't help but feel moved by the scene, and the subject matter -- all this care shown for the dear, homely little button! The most hardworking, humble, and often-invisible of objects. Why do people collect coins, or stamps, or stickers, or erasers. What are we doing when we find ourselves longing for the one eraser we don't yet have. To stake out a small territory of order and carefulness within the chaos of the universe -- as every collection of anything seems to be -- feels like an achievement, somehow, when it's often hard to see the point. I want to believe there is a reason for it, and perhaps want, too, to believe that the reason is not about the thing itself at all, but more about our ability to find ways to mitigate hopelessness. And practice love. I don't know. What is it.
The hotel was so shabby, the lighting awful, but the setting seemed to speak to this feeling. The room itself was actually beyond irrelevant -- it seemed symbolic of something, all ugliness and junk. When I'd picked out my own little bag of cuties, I found Andy sitting happily with one lovely lady to whom he'd been talking for quite a while. She showed us all her favorites. We hadn't a clue what time it was and didn't care, the afternoon seemed open and slow. She was so pretty. I felt the lack of grandmothers in my adult life quite keenly then. I would like to spend time, sifting through buttons and listening to stories about the 60s, Arizona, what it was like to move to a town where you knew no one, to make a friend who collected buttons and start a new hobby that would last forty years. "Oh, it's fun!" she said. I feel like I could learn a lot about things there. I wish I had a grandma. Maybe there are lots of different kinds of grandmas. Maybe they don't need to be yours at all to work their magic on you. I felt different when I left.