The Authentic

I’ve been doing all sorts of things over the last few days: my deadlines have deadlines! But one thing I’ve had to do, because it needed to be done, is refinish a table. There are two pieces of furniture I’ve needed in the apartment, and one is a small table on which I can eat meals and grade papers. The table is all done now. This is what it looks like:

It looks so finished that it’s difficult, even for me, to imagine that several days ago, it was just a disassembled table of unfinished wood. I had help with the assembly, but I did all the staining and finishing myself. It was very simple: just Minwax Golden Oak stain from the hardward store, and then Minwax Antique Oil Finish. And the table itself is not an expensive table, although it is solid wood: alder, a step up from unfinished pine.

But there’s something about it — I don’t know if it’s evident from the picture, although it is to me — that seems authentic. It has an authenticity to it. I think that’s what I look for in just about everything, nowadays: a sense of the authentic. I found it in these teacups and saucers that I bought at Goodwill:

The funny thing is that I found them on different days, first the teacups and then the saucers. I look for that authenticity in furniture, in clothes, in poems. In food, even. So I’m wondering what exactly it is. In part, it has to do with what something is made from. My table is solid wood. It’s held together by wooden dowels and metal screws. There is no plastic in it. The clothes I tend to buy are made of cotton or silk or something else that is real. I try to eat real food, not food that has been processed into inauthenticity — into becoming something that is no longer food.

But there is something more to it than simply materials. I put significant labor into that table. Those teacups and saucers have transferware patterns that were applied by hand. So there is labor, human labor, that went into them. The table itself will become more authentic, more itself, as it ages: as I use it, as it acquires scratches, which are scars on wood. So I suppose age and use made something authentic.

It’s hard to pinpoint, really: why some things seem real and some don’t. But when something is inauthentic, it feels as though it doesn’t belong — as though I need to get rid of it as quickly as possible. It makes me uncomfortable.

What I’m trying for in my writing is always authenticity, but again, I’m not quite sure where it lies. What is an authentic voice? A voice that is itself — and yet it takes a great deal of time and training to find a voice that is authentically your own. You have to get rid of all the other voices first, of the facile writing. If only this writing thing were easier! And yet, I could simply go to Ikea and buy a table. No staining or finishing required. But it would be Ikea furniture: with some pretention to design, but half plyboard. It would feel inauthentic. And so I take the time to create a table that feels authentic — that I can use for the rest of my life.

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2 Responses to The Authentic

  1. Your site is like fairyland. I try not to comment too often, but this is so wise and lovely, I’m drawn in. Years ago in Portland, Oregon my husband (then) and I visited the home of an artist who had mismatched wooden furniture, and led us into the wonders of authenticity. We bought a wooden put together table and found a trunk from 1907 for $5 which came with me in many moves. Two wooden chairs I found, one in my building’s basement and the other years ago, at a bus stop as if waiting to be waltzed away. Every visit to a thrift shop is a search for something magical.

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