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Love, loss, and my Noguchi lamp

The paper lantern that taught me how to live with love lost

Egg-shaped orange paper lantern with white stips on thin tripod legs.
This Noguchi Akari light sculpture, model 1AT, costs $145.

It seems excessive to pay $145 for some crinkled, molded paper. Yet that’s exactly what I did when I bought myself a Noguchi Akari lamp last year.

Should you peruse Pinterest and your aesthetic skews minimalist, you’ve likely seen these before, tucked into the corner of a stunningly spare space, filling the room with quiet radiance.

Actually called “light sculptures,” they were conceived by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. One summer earlier, I almost bought one off Craigslist. Ordered for a party; hardly used; still in box, the seller wrote. It was $100. Still, I couldn’t justify the cost.

Then I fell in love—or something like it. Like my new romantic relationship, the lamp purchase was unexpected and wildly irrational. (We were long-distance; he lived in D.C.) One freezing day in February, we ventured to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. Together we sat on a curved sofa near the window while I sipped ginger tea and admired the 36 light sculptures, all neatly placed on the surrounding shelves in the gift shop.

“Should I buy one?” I asked him.

“Sure,” he said. That was all the affirmation I needed.

Although I had pined over the pristine, minimal white, I bought mine in unexpected orange instead. “I’ll always remember the day we came here,” my thinking went. I didn’t want a physical relic of our relationship to be bland and inoffensive, expected and tasteful. I failed to consider that I might prefer those sentiments should we break up. Which, of course, we did.

Today the lamp rests on my windowsill, just visible from my bed. Small, shapely, and slightly bulbous, it resembles a rounded robot, a squishy jellyfish top, or a squat radish. Honestly, I don’t hate it. Not at all. Like an unsightly scar I’ve lived with for years, its presence feels almost unremarkable to me.

Besides, throwing out the lamp would have been even more irrational than my initial purchase. Living with it almost feels instructive. Especially in a capitalist society where we displace our emotions into objects, or fervent shopping, anyway. “You cannot discard your past the way you might slough off an old sweater,” it seems to tell me. In time, we all learn to live with our uncomfortable mistakes.

Now every evening, once the sun sets, I click the circular switch until my room fills with a warm, amber glow, the little bulb radiating from its center. Then I settle back and read, or simply sit and stare, noticing how my lamp, like love, bathes the world in a different, more effulgent light.

Alexis Cheung is a writer living in New York City.