“Pick it up and write,” I instruct the class as I pass around a late 1930's silver pocket lighter engraved with my mother's initials: I.T.
“Feel the weight of it in your hand,” I continue. “Run your thumb over the depressed lettering that interrupts the art deco design, flick the thumb-press, and imagine the wick bursting into flickers of white hot flame.”
“Can you catch a whiff?” I ask, “A remnant of butane? Allow the artefact to direct your imagination,” I tell this group of students participating in my Stopwatch-Writing workshop.
The object feels cold to the touch at first, and then picks up warmth as it is passed from hand to hand. One by one, the members of the class reach for their writing instruments. Soon, the scratching of pens—no clicking of computer keys allowed here—is heard throughout the room.
These advertising-industry creatives know that the best ideas come to them in the middle of the night or on their downtime. Most carry a notebook to the gym, and keep a pencil handy near the bath. Today, they’re learning to provoke the muse during difficult times when the mind won’t co-operate.
Before long, the tactile writing prompt is back in my possession. I examine its decorative monogram: I.T., short for Iris Thomas.
Because I know the story of the birthday-gift lighter that was thrown across the dance floor in a moment of how dare you insist that I can’t dance with anyone but you, my mind’s eye has no trouble conjuring images. I see the men in uniform, hear the big band music, taste the egg sandwiches that have been masterfully prepared by matronly chaperones, anxious about their loved ones heading off to war.
Iris was definitely ‘it’ back then, with five proposals before she married my dad. Hers had been a good decision. “I was fickle,” she used to say, “and it served me well.”
Mom laughed when she told me how the lighter had come to be dented. We had been going through her jewellery stash one day—a little trip down memory lane we often took together after lunch at Mom’s apartment. “I never allowed anyone to push me around,” said this woman who adamantly refused to accept any secretarial job that involved filing. As I turn the talisman over and slip my thumbnail into the groove of a small screw located on the bottom, I realize that she never refilled lighters either. That was a job for my father.
“Time!” I announce to the class.
I’ve gone back decades as the stopwatch marked ten minutes.
The group shares their inspirations, I pontificate, and soon it is time to leave. “Take a familiar object out of its usual environment and place it in an unexpected setting,” I tell my students, assigning their homework.
Driving home, I look forward to passing the lighter on to my sister. What magic, what images will it conjure for her I wonder. Barely through the door, I place the lighter within her reach. “Remember this?”
Elizabeth, her nose scrunched, shifts the shiny silver object from hand to hand. She tosses it back. “Sure do. One night I snuck in late. Dad was waiting up on the couch, his pillow in flames. Why?” she asks with a shiver.
“No reason,” I say, and pocket the lighter. “Let me take you out for lunch.”