Do the things around you shape your life?  Switch you on?  Make you you?

My little cocktail shaker is silver-plated, and was probably once quite elegant.  I suspect it’s from the 1920s or 30s.  It’s been knocked about over the years:  the silver is worn off in places, it has a couple of hefty dents and it’s rather wobbly.  Whenever I make a Martini or Gimlet, and my hands trace the dents on the side of the shaker, I can’t help wondering how it acquired them.  It might have been something utterly prosaic, like getting dropped when someone was moving house.  But, knowing my family’s history, it’s just as possible it slipped out of shaky hands at some dramatic moment.  Perhaps when my twenty-one year old grandmother announced to her parents that she was leaving my grandfather, despite the scandal it would cause; or in 1939, when, while they were supposedly safe in Singapore, they heard that the UK was once again at war with Germany; or when my great-grandparents, grandmother and mother, who happened to be in Canada in early 1942 to settle my great-grandparents into their retirement, heard that Singapore had fallen to the Japanese.  Or, despite the fact she rarely drank, perhaps my grandmother dropped it in relief when she heard that her new love, my adoptive grandfather, had survived the fall of Singapore, though now was a prisoner in the infamous Changi camp.  Of course it’s even nicer to imagine that it was used at happier moments: like when my family was reunited after the war, or when my mother was admitted to university at sixteen, or perhaps even when one of the grandchildren, maybe even yours truly, was born.

Every time I use it, this past, real or imagined is with me.  Of course, so is my own past use of it.  One snowy day right before Christmas, after dragging home our Christmas tree, we made martinis with friends to toast the season and their forthcoming wedding.  I made myself a martini shortly after my daughter was born, relishing my first taste of gin in months and marvelling how my life had change.  And, just the other night, I made myself that little Gimlet, and paused to write about importance of taking a moment simply to live.

We live in an era that asks us to look inward to explain who we are.  It seems that every day brings some new book on how genetics or the wiring in our brain shapes us.  But my cocktail shaker stands as a (dented) rebuke to such thinking, and makes a silent argument that we should also look outward to see who we are.  The things that surround us tell a story about what we think is important and how we want to live, and they invite towards – or distance us from – certain ways of living.  In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes that our buildings and possessions “tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants.  While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people.  They speak of visions of happiness.”

But this is more than a question of aesthetics and design.  The archaeologist Michael Shanks says that time doesn’t flow, it percolates all around us in a way that is visible – should we care to see it – in our cultural, natural and geological landscapes.  My cocktail shaker is one little bubble from the past, one that carries with it a connection to my family and their stories.  Whenever I use it, it invites me to connect with that past, however fleetingly, just as it invites me to pause and live in the moment.  It also stands a reminder that there will always be some things worth keeping, nurturing and using.

The things we have represent who we are, and they also influence our behaviour, thoughts and actions.  They do this through their beauty (or lack thereof), history and the connections to people, places and times that they extend to us.  Given that we live in a culture of globalized commerce, commodification, forced obsolescence and disposability, it’s worth asking ourselves what “we” the things around us foster.  Personally, I want a life in which people and things are not interchangeable or disposable, in which there are moments that we slow down and connect, and in which there’s fun and positive energy.  My dented little cocktail shaker sums that all up very nicely.

My Cocktail Shaker