Wednesday, November 6, 2019

We Create Cathedrals

I've got a lot of odd ideas, I know.

On my nine hour drives - down to South Carolina and then back - my mind spins. Sometimes I am able to bliss out on music; sometimes I'm worrying about familial relationships and concerns; sometimes I run through arguments or debates I'll never have. Every once in a while I'll plan an outfit for an upcoming event, or try to come up with the perfect holiday menu - what silver to use, what dishes, crinolines versus pencil skirts, or could I just wear pajamas, or will I have to iron a tablecloth? I'll tell you, my brain keeps me busy over the course of those nine hours. And whatever has occurred on my visits is usually on my mind on the way back.

During this visit with my grandmother, I was invited to help sort through family photographs, scrapbooks, files. It made a significant impression on me. Here, comics in oil pastel of my grandfather riding a bicycle - there, a stunning portrait of the director of my grandmother's college - and in this box, photos of my great-grandparents as children. A miraculous catalog of intimacy, of the things which came before me but which live on in my family's stories, in our genetic code, in a cultural identity. And, as I am full of those odd ideas, I wondered - shouldn't there be some sort of archive which benefits us all? An interactive museum of the things which make us human?

Like my grandmother, I am a keeper of things. On my piano rests a metal box - inside this box are keys to my apartment on Lafayette Avenue, and fortunes from fortune cookies, and tickets to plays I saw in high school, and slips of paper with quotations written in green ink. That box has moved with me through six different homes. I've still got the tickets to the Grace and Saint Peter's parish ball when I wore the green iridescent dress (that, unfortunately, has been lost), and I still have the wrapper from a box of bread rolls in Belfast, "four wee baps." My University College Cork ID card; a tiny photograph of my sister; a bookmark from Turkey.

What happens to those things? I could probably clear them out. I hardly ever look in that box. And who else is going to want the notebook paper, "Verdant forest and a sky suggesting rain, or the end of the universe, or the perfect spring day..."? 

What do we do with the artifacts of our lives, the evidence of our humanity on an individual and collective scale? How do we pass on to others the meaning in small slips of paper, cracked photographs, the keys to our first apartments? 

In this nine-hour fever dream, I thought about the work which we need, on some level, which is curating the bigness of small things. Something I love so much about life is the stunning significance which exists in all of us and which is unknowable to others, because they, of course, have their own significance - their own small things. Only a handful of people know what it was like to go to the parish ball. Only a handful remember my grandfather biking at Rehoboth with a basket full of pastries. And that - that has to be shared, somehow. 

We have in us so much wealth of experience. And I suppose that's what art is for - the ways to tell our stories, paint or words or motion or song. Putting the inside on the outside. But I think there should also be some sort of - a public space, a museum, a cathedral, where we can put the bits of paper, where we can say, here, here is Alice, she had rotten handwriting, and here's her Grandmere, and her mother, and Aunt Mart, and all of it, and you and your family, too. 

Days suspended like crystals of ice, like limestone, like geodes. Vibrations of the universe you can almost still hear. 


I wish there were a way to contain it all and to make it all accessible. We are more than we seem; we are our own archivists. And I have a feeling that if we could see each other's small things and feel that bigness, we'd be better human beings, with a tremendous capacity for love. I think we'd be kinder if we knew that the stranger on the street still kept a pebble from their childhood vacation to the seaside. I think we'd be happier if we knew that our friend's family was as complicated and weird and mythologically complex as our own. Wouldn't you fall in love, just a little bit, when faced with the concrete evidence of another person's existence? 

Man, those nine hour drives do a number on me.

Anyway, some day, somebody's going to look in the box on the back of my piano and wonder why there's a ticket to a science-fiction film made in 2005. Why there are keys to a lock that was changed long ago. I'm hoping it'll be me, with maybe a grand niece or nephew, and I can say, yes, these, the bits of how I am real - this is who I was and who I am, always. 

I exist. I existed.

And I was a keeper of things.      

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