O my floating life
Do not save love
to the flood.
—Lorine Niedecker, Paen to Place
How do you tell yourself to yourself?
What is your process for remembering, for mediating experience, for archiving the self?
Are you someone that has meticulously kept all of your correspondence—from a lifetime before email, when handwriting was personal, and a natural individual identifier—and bad adolescent poetry, journals, videos, photographs and ephemera? Is it packed away in boxes and covered in dust or is it somewhere accessible, that which you access with something approaching a kind of regularity? Do you know, to the precise location, exactly where all of your hidden, secret, past and present selves reside?
Maybe you identify with this and have these collections, these accumulations of your autobiography. Or perhaps you’re the other sort: the person that has been able to light a match to her past, put it into a bonfire when it no longer serves you. When those important junctures have occurred where you are, to paraphrase Rilke, required to change your life or die, you are that one who is determined to move forward into an unscripted future, never looking back at those relationships and events and interior monologues that drove your past feelings and actions. A person emphatic and decisive, even when they cannot be sure of outcomes. A person less concerned with what-ifs, and not particularly nostalgic for the past. Yours or anyone else’s.
So I’ve always kept a journal. And had the old ones stashed in various places, but always together. In the past year, the place where I live has experienced an extraordinary amount of rain. In May and June, this spot of land where the prairie meets the desert got twice the expected rainfall for the whole year. Sometime last month, I chanced to open the closet where the journals resided after a particularly heavy night of torrential storms. I didn’t open it to check for water damage, but instead to retrieve a book. And then I saw: all of my journals, twenty years or so worth, were all soaked through with storm water. They were stacked neatly atop one another, directly under the only spot in the entire space that held water. The journals swollen and sticky with gum residue and running ink. Dumbstruck, I immediately scooped them up and, not knowing what else to do, carried them outside to a table, opening them up and leaving them in the arid Colorado air.
I began to survey the damage.
I’ve always joked to close friends that the universe doesn’t bother to deal in subtleties where I’m concerned. Only heavy anvils of allusion and metaphor will do. In extreme examples, some higher power surmises, will I ever truly “get” any lessons and take them to heart. So it seemed particularly inauspicious that of the entirety of our household goods, only these personal historical objects were affected. Affected probably isn’t the right word. Laid waste. Obliterated. Unrecognizable.
If the universe was trying to send me a message, it seemed particularly pointed and blunt. Let go of your past, could be one of those messages. Get over yourself, already, could be another one.
It was certainly a past, or a record of a past, that had been transformed.
First loves. Failed loves. Bad choices. Life-changing travel. Things that inspired me. A record of lovers. My unwritten, unknown future, written and wondered about by my past self. Some of it still legible. Much of it looking like another language, or pentimenti, or a secret code.
I have always been the collector. The archivist. The keeper of words and images and past longings and past potential selves. I don’t revisit these accumulations often, but there has been something reassuring about knowing that they are there, that they exist. As if my hand on a page spilling words and sentiments five, ten, twenty years ago can, if coaxed, relay something back to my present self, fill in some gap of understanding, if and when the need arises. It’s been an equal, if converse, comfort to revisit old journals and commonplace books, photographs and letters and know how far from those persons, those could-have-been-selves, that I’ve come and detoured from. The many doors and rooms of the psychic mansion that remained closed (some, after venturing through for a short time); a fact for which I remain grateful.
Beyond anything else, the thing that is most striking in this is the revelation that is handwriting. The notion of handwriting itself has almost become anachronistic, a throw-back to an inefficient and sentimental way of doing things and communicating. I’ve heard that penmanship, and even cursive, isn’t taught to children any longer, and that seems to me both sad and to make a kind of pragmatic sense. Who writes in longhand anymore? When you once were able to identify someone, in voice and person, by their hand, what takes the place of that now? Their email address? Their social media handle? Caller ID?
When my mother died last year, I immediately set about searching for things in my possession that she had written to me. Something about her handwriting was evocative in a way that little else was. Throughout her prolonged sickness, I found witnessing her handwriting deteriorate as her illness progressed touching and poignant in ways that were gut-wrenching, reminding me that even while she was still alive that everything shifts and will come to an end. One’s entire life and conception of self, how they understood time, and people, what they valued and what they reviled—all the things they both could and could not say, that they knew or never cared to know, that all ends when they do. What’s left behind is everyone else’s interpretation. Their conjecture of another’s lived life.
If I ever thought about what might happen to these journals, it was always something mundane: my daughter would get them at some point, or, in a pleasant anonymous fantasy: they would be found at an estate sale or thrift store, and sifted through and wondered about by strangers. Instead, the flood has answered this question with emphatic disregard for any desired outcomes. It has rendered the reliquary of my past an offering of object-ness from which to make something else. In making these images, I am offered the opportunity to refashion my past, look at it as a thing-in-itself as opposed to a thing (a life) that happened to me, make peace with it, and then be granted permission to tear all the pages out, and allow them to continue to deteriorate.