Huntress of the Lens


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sorting a pile of my life

As we were finishing the move from one bedroom to another I found myself sitting on the floor going through the last of the things, the ones that never really have a place to go if you want to call them "Put Away." Bits and pieces, ten thousand notebooks with many or only a few pages written, photographs that are from such vastly different times in my life that it's as though the time-machine went haywire.

Our closet was daunting, that's where we've been storing items way-up-high for four years now. I used to look at it and think about organizing it just because it needed to be done, and then I would quickly move on to something that seemed possible. What surprised me was the collection under the huge piece of furniture that our television has been sitting on.

I bought the piece when Mervyn's was going out of business. You might have seen it with sweaters stacked on its four shelves, maybe a promotional sign or mannequin torso on the glass-on-aluminum framed top. It's five feet long, and maybe three feet deep, this is a display for a large retail store, not an entertainment center. Michael had to go through heroic maneuvers to get it around a corner and through a regular sized bedroom door.

When I brought it home, I immediately claimed all of the shelf space, along with that on top of my dresser, because I have more stuff than Michael does. I not only filled the shelves with books, boxes, little dishes shaped like leaves or made to hold a candle and bits of other things, I stuffed the space under it as well.

I have a thing for boxes, both large and small. My Big Daddy has known this forever, many of them are handmade by him, and two of them have secret compartments (the only thing that can make a box even better than it was originally.) Some are cool wooden cigar boxes, some are little tiny boxes made of metal or wood. I have never been able to resist an empty box or a blank book of new paper.

I have lived in the same house for fourteen years, and I think this move completes the third circuit of bedrooms I have lived in. I have moved many, many times without ever changing addresses.

After the large things were moved, all the things that make our room the place where we live there were a lot of things that must be kept. I had no place for them. That's how I ended up on the floor sorting a pile of my life.

Sometimes I wonder, when I die will my loved ones will go through every single page and scrap, look at every photo, or just bag it all up and take it to the dump? Many things are dated, many are not. There is a gathering of this same kind of paper history in the garage that equals what I have in the house. It would take unaccustomed eyes days to absorb it all. There is everything I have compulsively written over a century or so, and many pieces that were contributed by someone else. I will keep an angry unsigned note from someone, but discard all the store-bought cards I've been given over the years. When I'm gone I know there will seem to be no rhyme or reason to what I kept, but each thing is somehow part of the puzzle of who I am.

The collection I have been dealing with over the last few days has mesmerized me the way these things always do. They make me sit down and look at each piece and place it on the timeline in my head. There is a cassette tape of me talking at twenty-two months old, answering questions about who the president is ("President Johnson lives in the white house.") and talking about a rat ("Look at his tiny little hands, he's kissing me!") and Dottie's voice prompting me to parrot all the cute things she's taught me to say. I can hear that clearly in my head this minute, and yet it has probably been twenty years since I've actually played it out loud. I can hold the object in my hand and listen to it without a player.

There is the photo album from the day I married the boys' dad. I'm impossibly young and my Big Daddy is slim and dark, tall and handsome. I look at those young people promising to be married forever and know from this vantage point that they are far too young to know what "the rest of your life" means. When I look at my own baby face in those pictures I feel sad that I thought I had already reached adulthood and knew who I was.

Pictures of me, hugely pregnant with Paul, motherhood still a theory and an ideal. Apparently they hadn't invented the blow-dryer yet. (This is a lie, I killed my hair all through high school trying to look like Farrah.) My unruly mop is either air-dryed to it's almost-curly best or braided, by the time Andrew comes along the braid reaches my waist. Notebooks of my own writing with pages of lyrics or short-stories that their dad wrote layered in between. They are typed on some ancient computer; printed on yellowing, continuous-feed paper with perforation bumps at the top and bottom.

In the same pile is the leather folio with the wedding ceremony from this, my adult marriage. There are actual vows, promises to stay together no matter what. In that first ceremony we didn't really promise anything but to tell the truth, and to "Do what works and stop doing what doesn't." and I see now that you really do get served whatever you order from the Universe's menu.

There's a photo of Grito with a can of Natty Ice and the black wise man from my Grandmother's Jesus barn that comes out at christmas. There's a picture of me sitting on a new Harley that Molly's dad gave me in lieu of a real engagement ring. There's a photo album where I am between nine and ten years old, full of Dottie and the contrived poses she favors in any photographic situation. There are two almost perfectly round rocks. There're several school projects from all three kids, and an exact list of what was on my desk one day. (I was drinking back then, actually it's a pretty funny list, down to the number of bottle caps and pot seeds there were.) Also there are many bits of broken jewelry, tiny little medicine bags that haven't been opened in three decades, the medal Andrew was awarded in the Army and gave to me, some flakes of dried flower petals, a feather or two. There's the book of poetry my Grandfather wrote while he was courting my Grandmother. I've consolidated the paper, and my attic steps are completely blocked with items and boxes of things that "Will be good to use in an art project some day."

The way I get trapped by this same collection, no matter how many times I gather it from the places it has been wedged since the last time I did this, is that I feel as though I should go through it and discard some of it. Maybe I should consolidate it, or put it in chronological order. Maybe I should put this whole stack in one of my many boxes, but wait, all the boxes are full and now I must look at each item in every box. I can't remember the last time I have thrown away a single page.

It's a shame I'm not a very important person. If anyone had a collection like this from Abraham Lincoln or some other fascinating character from history they would be overjoyed. Just think of it- all of old Abe's angst-ridden teenage poetry, all of his lists, the notes his friends passed him in school. Ok, I realize that most of the stuff I have in my pile didn't even exist when Mr. Lincoln was young, but I trust you get my point. I'm not important historically, and therefore the collection of things I never let go of is just a pile of stuff; unless you're in one of the pictures, you could take that and put it on your refrigerator with a magnet.

Somehow it's all put away again, waiting for the next time.

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