Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Physics and Metaphysics of Lost Things

Some twenty years ago when we still had a subscription to the Asheville paper, Robin was checking the gossip in the Sunday Parade when he suddenly called out, “Mom. They’ve done a study which shows that adults spend thirty-five percent of their time looking for things.” After I stopped wondering how on earth they conducted such a study, I realized it was a sad and disturbing bit of information. It started me on the road to having a place for everything and trying to put everything in its designated place. That effort has had lasting value and I continue to fine-tune it, but it has not totally eliminated searches for lost or misplaced items.

Krista Tippett, the host of the NPR program On Being, seems to be fascinated by scientists, especially physicists. I have found these occasional interviews to be stimulating and challenging. In particular, my thoughts keep returning to the charming and funny physicist who claimed, “You can explain everything with physics.” While listening to that particular show, I was also searching for something I had lost and wondered what laws of physics might apply. Given that I had carefully avoided all encounters with physics during my education, I decided to find out more about it. Wikipedia told me that it is “the study of matter and its motion through space and time.” I then consulted my one-volume Encyclopedia Britannica. There I found this definition: “Physics is the science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe.” After some further explication I found this choice sentence, “ The goal of physics is to formulate comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all discernable phenomena.”

Well now, my observable universe consists of the 920 square feet of my house, plus some covered storage space outside, and the interior of my car. The surrounding gardens and woods are subject to the laws of nature and are not where I look when I’ve misplaced something. My missing items are bits of matter that I have moved through space and time and then absent-mindedly put somewhere, therefore creating the phenomena of lost stuff. So I decided that I could in fact identify and formulate the physics of lost domestic matter. My laws have not been subjected to algebraic formulae, double-blind studies, or even widespread anecdotal information gathering. They are based on personal observation and conversation with my peers. Here are the Dreyer laws concerning the creation and resurrection of lost domestic matter.

1. A Place for Everything only works if you put things away in that right place. Mindfulness (or being present in the moment) is essential to maintaining the Right Place option. Conversely, inattention and distraction increase the frequency of lost objects.

2. The intention to put something away correctly is no guarantee if the phone rings. The same is true for a knock on the front door, the buzz from the kitchen timer, a dog looking hopeful as he drops a toy on your foot, or a sudden urge to use the bathroom.

3. Clean, flat surfaces attract stuff. Missing bits of lost domestic matter are prone to winding up in random piles of stuff. Searches that begin by clearing and sorting these piles can have positive results.

4. Physical searches for vanished items are more successful if started after a mental search for the last clear memory of the item and an effort to reconstruct the path taken plus the locational implications of possible interruptions.

5. The metaphysical law of lost things is what I call the St. Anthony Theorem. A large statue of that saint occupies a corner of my house. He is known as the patron saint of lost things. When all else fails, petitioning St. Anthony for his help is usually successful, especially if his handsome, bald pate is rubbed after the request.

My personal theory about St Anthony’s success is that it works because I let go. The tension drops away, the stress is reduced, the mind gets more clear, and within minutes or hours or days, the brain produces a memory that leads to the desired outcome or serendipity intervenes and I happen upon the missing item. In either case the lost is found and put to use and then safely stored in its right place. Appropriate thanks are always given to St. Anthony.