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Object and Ritual

1. Object

The object I am thinking of is a bucket. A bucket is an elemental thing, like integrity. Buckets are sturdy, but hardly fancy. A simple bucket is something to contemplate during times of chaos and war. Buckets are found not in boardrooms, but in barns, sheds, and backyards.

I am writing this piece on buckets during the American war in Iraq. I am not fighting in the war, and the war has so far caused me no personal loss, but its images of violence and pain are present in my mind. I counter the disturbance by thinking of a simple object: a bucket, an old bucket.

The first buckets were made of wood or leather, and they were used to draw water from wells. The word bucket entered English from Old English in 1300. A bucket is a vessel with a hooped handle for carrying water or milk. The Anglo-Saxon bucket had metal hoops encircling wooden staves. It had a metal rim clipped to the wooden staves with rim clips. The handle was riveted to handle mounts.

The act of drawing water from a well is a simple duty. The act of milking a cow into a bucket is a simple duty. The word “bucket” has a simple sound. A bucket is a simple object on which to rest the mind. Our times may be disturbed, but within this larger disturbance we can hold a steady course, speak for what we think is right, hold on to whatever seems elemental and essential.

A farm worker carries a full bucket by leaning away from the weight, by sticking out his other arm for balance. This labor, carrying water to water the mare, carrying water from the well to the house, carrying milk from the cow barn to the calf barn, is as old as bread on the table. As a girl growing up on a farm, I was a great bucket carrier. I prided myself on my strength [End Page 55] and on my skill in carrying buckets full of water, with no spilling. I liked buckets, and I liked salt licks and water troughs.

The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas speaks of choosing objects as a way of choosing the self you want to express in the moment. His idea is that the self is fluid and at least partly chosen. You may choose to pick up a tome by Tolstoy, or it may be a baseball mitt––you choose to play ball. These objects—the book or the mitt—express different selves at different times. You may choose your garden gloves or a video game or a film. I choose the image of an old bucket. I rest my mind on it.

There are objects that stand for childhood or for particular persons or for lost loves. When I think of my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother, I think of white cotton handkerchiefs with lace edges, printed with violets. When I think of my father, I think of his large German shepherd puppy named Toby. When I think of my sister Pamela, I think of the streets of Rome.

The object that most represents my childhood is a galvanized metal bucket. I remember our horse Virginia munching oats from a bucket. I remember the pig, its snout in the bucket. I remember the newborn calves sucking on the rubber nipples of calf buckets.

A poem I wrote 30 years ago, one of the first I dared to keep, contains a bucket:

Barefoot, squatting in the sunlight of the backporch step

flies buzz around a bucket of old milk turned to cheese

white barns cool inside sun-silenced.

Memory: still as stone.

During times of war and chaos, we could do worse than to think of an old bucket. We could do worse than to think of sunlight on a back-porch step. We could do worse than to rest our minds on objects that are elemental and essential and that have dignity. [End Page 56]

2. Ritual

The ritual I am thinking of is making the bed in the morning. Making the bed represents taking care of things. It is like sweeping the floor...


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