Old Desires, Renewed Habits: Reflections on Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the seventh installment of this series, Rachel reflects on Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich.
I like that a short story can capture a distinct moment in time. You enter a scene—a life—as it’s unfolding. The length of time you spend with each character reminds you that beginnings and endings don’t always measure up to the importance we tend to ascribe to them. At least, this is how I felt after reading Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich.
In eleven compelling stories, Sestanovich holds a magnifying glass—and at times a funhouse mirror—up to contemporary life. With grace and precision, she writes about women who find themselves at turning points; the daily happenings of siblings, lovers, and friends. Sestanovich also examines their desires and ultimately shows us how these yearnings can quietly transform—or, in some cases, destroy—everything.
In this way, reading Objects of Desire feels akin to finding yourself in the calm before the storm; breathing in the chilled air before turmoil catapults your life in directions you never imagined were possible. Off the page, I recognize that this is not unlike the feeling someone encounters before breaking character—breaking habits—throwing caution to the wind, and finally going after what they want.
In my office, there is a scuffed white filing cabinet with two overflowing drawers. The top drawer contains an explosion of cables, cords, and various tech accessories that take forever to detangle. The bottom holds paper file dividers, sealed envelopes, and a small collection of notebooks—more compact but requiring no less time or effort to unravel. To understand.
During a recent cleaning spree, I pulled a dust-covered black felt journal out of the pile. My first diary. Its cover features an embroidered bouquet of fuchsia and rosy flowers—poppies maybe?—and the original entry dates back to January 3rd, 2002. I was nine years old.
As I flipped through the pages, I reacquainted myself with childhood musings, but more so, how I chose to capture the world and distill these experiences on the page. First sentences prefaced rants, reflections, even apologies. Yet, it was the last entry that caught my attention. In neon pink scribbly cursive, I wrote:
“Dear diary, I’ve enjoyed writing here, but somehow I’ve run out of room. Goodbye for now.
Rachel - the diary writer”
Short but—looking back—not so sweet. I didn’t actively keep a diary again until years later.
The forward trajectory of life doesn’t always create space to revisit the past. Still, I’ve been thinking about a poignant passage in Sestanovich’s story, “Security Questions,” where the protagonist reflects: “She misses her sisters with a sudden, unusual intensity, or maybe she just misses the time when it seemed as if their lives belonged to each other—when they forgot whose fears were whose, whose stories were whose, because they were everyone’s.”
I always wanted to write. But as I inched closer to adulthood, I tucked that dream away and instead attached my identity to places predicated on productivity, output, and validation. In practice, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, but what I’ve only recently realized is that the habits these ambitions created took hold over what I thought I wanted (needed).
A couple of years ago, something started to change, and when the world shut down, it forced other impulses to the surface. I began to observe my habits against the pace I had sustained for the last ten years of my life. And then I started to slow down. To look up. To read again—widely. To create enough time and agency to understand my desires. To reconcile the girl I once was with the professional I wanted to be with the woman I’ve been all along—a writer.
These days, when I start a book, I read the author’s acknowledgments before anything else. I want to know what drives them. In Objects of Desire, Sestanovich opens this section with the following: “This book began in my head, where it would have remained were it not for the people who understood what it might be, who insisted on its becoming.”
For the longest time, I understood desire as something tangible: something—or someone—you could grasp. Amidst the chaos, I always liked to feel the texture of my wants—success, love, hope—in the palm of my hand. But as I hold Sestanovich’s book against my chest, I’m reminded that desire can be found in multitudes: In the depths of the mind and the hearts of others. In speed and slowness. In personal and professional work. In the last page of the first diary. I’ve enjoyed writing here, but somehow I’ve run out of room.
I like that a short story can honor a distinct moment in time. You embrace a scene—a life—as it’s unfolding. Here is a scene that’s unfolding in my story: It’s a late afternoon in August. A gentle wind wafts through the branches of my tree-lined street. Inside, golden light streams through the blinds. A pile of papers sits in front of me. A candle burns to my left. My phone is face down to my right. My childhood diary is open in my lap. It is my object of desire, my portal into the past, my chance to make room. To write a new habit—to write anything at all. I trace my finger along its edges.
— Rachel Schwartzmann