Wednesday, October 06, 2021

the things we leave behind

Last week, for the first day of #31daysofhalloween offerings, I finally unveiled the culmination of something that was 10 years in the making--something that had various components and a few different conceptualizations of what the finished form would be.  Initially it was just the collages (2012).  Then the larger installation that included them as a part of a library exhibit. (2015).  The text components were initially planned as a sheaf of letters and other ephemera tucked into a box (not unlike the Cornell project.) 

I spent the summer of 2017 writing those parts and doing research on things like taxidermy and hungarian legends and by fall, had a badly beaten spiral notebook full of text portions--letters and journal entries--full of research notes. Then my mother spent the entire autumn in hospitals and rehab centers and then was gone, and try as I may, though 2018 was a productive year for writing and art to keep my mind occupied, I did not return to the project. Every time I started transcriing what was in the notebook, I grew frustrated that it wasn't what I wanted.  I returned to it during the first weeks of quarantine, again to distract myself from other things, but it wasn't working out. Finally, I decided to ditch most of what was in the notebook and distill it down to the bare minimum I needed to tell a story.  

A story of two sisters haunted by a house full of dead animals and cruel men.  By ghosts and their own unborn children.  I liked the sparer version much better, and realized that maybe the orange notebook had been instrumental in the process and not just a bulk of wasted time and effort to get to where I wanted to be. Though I had envisioned it on a grander scale and a much more intricate project, it was already quite large if you counted the visual components--the collages, the installation. What felt like a failure to get it where I wanted it to be began to feel more like this was what it was intended to be all along.

It is also strange in that the collages are steeped in my own maternal family history.  Exactly a decade ago, I returned home for a weekend to get an alumni award from my undergrad school and my aunt, before I left, dragged out a box of cabinet cards & photos she had been sent from relatives Nebraska. She only knew who a few of the faces were (including a picture of my grandmother as a child (above).   I had seen other prints of this photo in the albums my mother inherited from my grandmother herself. One of the first feelings of dread when it comes to mortality I remember as a child was navigating a huge stack of photos on my grandmother's coffee table after her death--photos of family, but also friends, trips, places and people we weren't familiar with.  I was only 8, but it made me uncomfortable. 

What happens to someone's life --not the body or the soul but the million pieces one leaves in the world.   Where does it go?  Who does it belong to?  The saddest and most interesting things at thrift stores are the caches of random photos and ephemera, no doubt rescued from someone's house.  These cabinet cards felt like that.  My aunt told me there were mine and to do with them what I would, but I could not bring myself to wreck them, so carefully scanned each one and tucked the originals away.  A few weeks ago I came across them straightening my studio area at home and was tempted to toss them again.  I did not. But then I wondered why not? Some day, when I am dead, because I have no children, someone will find them and throw them away. 

Stuff makes me anxious..even more personal stuff.  While the thought of someone one day packing up clothes and books for donation is less frightening, I think of my photo albums. My journals. Yearbooks from middle school and junior high. Several scrapbooks--writing related, theatre related. My folders full of poem drafts. Where does this go/  Who owns it when i am gone??  Who even wants it? Will those same victorian photos of people somehow distantly related to me wind up in the hand of another artist like me. A collector of odd random things. 

Which of course, brings us back to the project.  The letters (fictional) from one sister to another across time and distance. Somewhere I have a few odd letters from high school penpals.  Some notes from friends in the years before e-mail.  Letters sent from family when I was living in North Carolina and badly wanted mail. There were some love letters I once kept-- from an ex who spent time incarcerated for the better part of a year and wrote often. (though I briefly and unwisely  revived this entanglement a couple years later, the letters I tossed in 2013.)  As e-mails and text became the prime ways to communicate, the paper trail has dwindled. Thankfully, no one will read my letters when they are gone.  As a writer who wonders how much of famous authors writings they actually would shiver to see published now, this is a big relief.  

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