It looked pretty innocent really. “Feb 2000” in black marker on the side, the handwriting was my mother’s; predating that in cursive “Cin’s box. Do not open.” Oh, certainly that had been too much for her. My mother, the woman who bore me and who always wanted to understand me, to love me better. I could never let her.
At some point in the past, I had rescued my read diaries from that box, only vaguely glancing at the other contents. My heart and stories again violated, the secrets I could barely admit to myself, all my happiness and shame. This was the second time. I wondered with whom she’d discussed her complicated daughter’s words. The truths I gripped so tightly were mine and mine alone. Her forced intimacy made me ashamed of what my words could expose. For years I couldn’t write. When I did I couldn’t share.
I needed distraction desperately that day. It had been almost a year since the red string that had once darned my heart had been gently tugged. Thinking I would be better for it, I let it unravel, I let it unmake me. For a year now I had been suffering my unmaking. Trying to build a new home with the pieces of myself that had been returned to me. Tides rose and fell. I told myself it was just a moment.
I wanted some guidance and I hoped I would find it in the stars. Somewhere in that box was an astrological chart. I didn’t believe in astrology really. I don’t see myself in space, time is always playing tricks on me. I just wanted to distract myself from the my lurking fear that you can’t cut red strings. The red strings are your ARTeries. They are attached to your beating heart as long as you are alive. How I wished to be free of all my veins and capillaries.
The warning was on the box. I saw it marked clearly and I ignored it. Not distraction but destruction. Inside the box was all that I couldn’t throw away when I ran into the big world hoping to lose myself. The yellowed masking tape disintegrated easily.
My ancestors were in that box: the blood that ran through my veins, my inherited characteristics, my genetic memory. In old broken frames, the forms of their faces, their strengths and weaknesses, their stories of love and pain, printed in black and white, their lightness and their darkness. It was all mine. It was my origin. I understood their darkness differently now. It became very clear I could never have come from anywhere else.
I took my maternal grandmother from that box. She was unconditional love. I needed her. I would rescue her from my grandfathers wall, in the box also by relation. Somebody should have rescued her from him.
To the geography teacher and careers advisor that once told me my only hope was to marry an important successful man: I am a writer you arsehole!
My grandfather: adventurer, horseman, geologist, opal miner, builder, plumber, electrician, gardener, instrument maker, husband, father, grandfather, story teller, christian, jew, victim, rapist, pedophile. I kept a letter from you in my box. I kept the photos from your wall. Your genetic imprint and the photo of the woman you married I will carry, the rest, I will give away.
My parents, you are here too: young and beautiful, full of love and hope, the future stretching out before you, accomplished, colourful and flat... this is the way I saw you first, when you were my entire reference, and I didn’t understand how I could have come from you.
What shocked me to the core was how much God there was in the box. Catholic school reports, tracing the education of a little girl who grew further and further away from faith in anyone or anything. My First Holy Communion certificate, accompanied by work sheets in my neat trusting printing. The Catholics get you young; colouring in Mary and the baby Jesus, copying prayers and learning them by heart, confession. CONFESSION. What the fuck does a seven year old have to confess?
A large, dark, cruel crucifix with a silver emaciated Jesus, dead. What a delightful ornament for any child’s room. Confirmation certificate. More worksheets covered in copied broken promises. Gifts: small porcelain angels, good little girls praying while tending sheep, pictures in tiny frames of Saints... this should be funny but it isn’t.
Mary, the mother. Even today I still place a candle at your feet when I sneak through the door of the church, after service, to look at the pretty windows and smell the cold, high space. My circular tour, the stations of the cross, my programming.
“Mary,” promised my mother, “can take away your bad dreams and protect all the children from harm.” How I wanted to believe this. I stared at the tiny green snake at her feet. How may times have I sat exhausted and inadequate at Mary’s feet and thought about my own children.
My hand goes to my throat and there they are again, a cross with a tiny diamond and Mary- my maternal grandmother’s medal, complete with toothmarks from one of her many difficult labours. I never take them off. I have tried to disguise, or balance, I’m not sure which, this yoke with other charms: the hand of fatima, a spinning disk with the promise of love, the buddha.
Covering my charms as if to protect them from the sweep, I bundle everything into and empty red shopping bag. I am angry. I really don’t need that shit.
A very pale, self conscious little girl with wire frames glasses and blond plats; the same little girl slightly older and cheekier; glasses off now and old beyond her years; what the fuck is going on with her hair?
Old friends, mostly transient witnesses I have escaped but some red string ones too; those who know all the girls I have been, those from who I hide nothing. I am grateful.
Pictures drawn by old school friends as a gift during a stay in hospital to remove skin cancers. Every dance and gymnastics certificate I ever received. Athletics ribbons won by a little girl who wasn’t athletic, just so much bigger than the other kids her age. Best Dressed Pet? Six tiny books of fairytales the size of postage stamps from a christmas stocking in 1981. What do these things say about me, other than everything.
My first flatmates are in here, young and funny. My own Jack Kerouac, I will never put you in a box again. For 20 years you walked behind me ready to catch me if I fell. I have lost your thread but found your words and face.
My first resume making so much of so little. The idea of becoming which quickly degenerated to shrunken, skinny, sold out, made up, track marked arms covered in a fake fur coat, wearing what looks like a nightdress. The world she had believed was her oyster, had closed around her like a giant clam. What is she doing in my box? It is so hard to look her in the eye. I am sorry. I want to apologise to her and brush the knots out of her hair. She is only just sixeen.
I have hidden from her for 20 years. I have hidden from her drug consumption and her pursuit of men, her homelessness, her desire to charge straight towards death. For a long time I have kept her very quiet (except on the nights where I find her in the bottom of a bottle, screaming).
Miracle Max you are here in the form of a cat, black and white cleaning a delicate paw in the long long grass of the knock down that became a refuge. You are in my box and my inbox still. You have watched from the couch, me sleeping around and falling in love with the men who would never love me back, as though I am a reality tv show. You shoved me into the arms of the first man I would trust myself with. You have been an enemy and a fast friend, a prisoner, a dad and brought back my Wesley from the dead. We laugh at the darkness that should scare us.
Pay slips from nursing, the first job I would ever truly love. My old ladies who needed to talk as much as I did; gentle touch that demanded nothing. I took love to work with me every day and tried to make amends for the damage I had done (to whom?). I found some confidence in myself again. I imagined a future. I learned to study.
Salvation, through you I discovered relationships were more valuable than oblivion. With you I became the part time mother of a little girl; a role I was safe in, competent at. I found my way back into the garden, put some roots down, risked my first tight blossoming. I shared my bed and body with one man, long enough to actually enjoy both.
I wanted to believe I was safe forever and that you would be my family. That wasn’t our story. You woke sleeping beauty. You didn’t want a ridiculous prince role imposed on you.
Friends and furniture were divided. I found a flat and fucked myself up.
There were the months where I tried to keep functioning, I tried again to give my body to strangers and found that either I couldn’t or they wouldn’t take it. My back left shoulder blade burned as though pierced by a hot knife. The heart that would gently open, recognising the beauty of things in the world, remembering itself would suddenly close, tight. A fist. A sea anemone.
Then I met H, but the diaries and photos from that time have been rescued from my mother and the box.
What remains are old greyhound tickets, the paper ones and the laminated ones. We were so young and happysilly together. That trip. Most of that trip I took with me 20 years ago when I left. They are A4 black and white pictures. We are walking together. I am wearing some very ugly overall shorts that don’t really fit. I am looking at H with all my honest love. He is looking out into the world.
Last night, compelled beyond my very limited self control I had been on the telephone to Wesley. Emptying my heart and glass after glass of wine, I wanted my friend back... only he wasn’t my friend. The Wesleys of the world defy such labels. I don’t know what to call him.
Once we were, very definitely, friends. We had been friends for years. Wesley’s first true love was one of my few female friends. I found her in the box, smiling and lively and confident. He had gone to school with Salvation and somehow, GEOgraphically perhaps, I had been allowed them when we had divided the furniture and friends.
He heard my stories and I heard his songs.
When I came home full of the future but very much alone, Wesley’s first love had gone. When they divided furniture and friends, somehow, GEOgraphically perhaps, I had been allowed to keep Wesley. I had never been so frightened and unhappy in my life. I wanted the child that was growing inside me, but I couldn’t even look after myself. He, had been abandoned by the woman he had loved since he was a boy. Together we grieved our imagined lives.
We were consolation. He was the prize of my consolation. For months we listened to each other; he played, I talked. It was never too dark or too late. He touched me in a way I had never been touched, without wanting anything in return. I was safe when I was with him. He looked straight through my fears as though they weren’t there. He saw nothing to fix. I had lost him 20 years ago but he had found his way back to me.
And here we were again, broken. Not only was he outside the box, he was inside it too and I found him amongst the cruel evidence of my unwantedness. I found him with Malou, the girl who would be his wife, banish me from their lives.
The hardest thing to see in the box were H’s letters. The letters he wrote me when I had come home to have our first child. They filled me with fear and remembrance. Our pregnancy was the biggest mistake he had ever made. He had never been so desolate. He didn’t know what to say to me. There was no love in these letters.
Our finding each other, back then and now, should never have been a punishable offense. I had found consolation because I was alone. I had let it be a lesson. Evidence of my nature. No better than a stray dog in the park.
Then there was reconciliation. Hopeful baby footprints and messages infused with enthusiasm and optimism. Cards congratulating me on the birth of my first son. A beautiful, creative card from H to celebrate my birthday. And more baby footprints.
I came home again with two beautiful children to wait for H to grow up and be ready for us. I mothered them alone and I did it well. I returned to school part time. I began to learn french. I tried to be worthy of all of them. My books were here, proof.
He came back for us eventually. We started practicing being a family, first in Australia, then in France.
There was a card from my grandmother, now long dead, wishing me Bon Voyage. I had just come home.
~ Cinthia (Sydney, Australia, 1990's)
Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Laurel, 1969) 39. (qtd. in Lasusa)
At some point I stopped buying souvenirs. Keychains specifically were a weakness wherever I’d traveled in the past. As any collectible, it was never about function. After all, how many keys does one have? Even after all keys (and duplicates) are neatly secured onto loops and rings and other securing mechanisms, one is still left with more keychains than could ever be put to use. What I ended up with in my case was a set of interconnected keychains, each one holding onto the other for dear life. It was poetic in a sense – Prague holding on to New York City holding on to Florida holding on to Bucharest holding on to a seemingly random benefit for X charity.
And there they sat, locked and tucked away in a drawer, never to see the light of day for months and years at a time. I could not get myself to throw them away, but I also did not feel a tinge of some particular sentiment when I stumbled across them. At some point they had lost their ability to call back to a particular moment, to act as a relic imbued with some deeper meaning that would justify its preservation. It had, in other words, become mere accumulation – just stuff.
In “Eiffel Tower Keychains and Other Pieces of Reality: The Philosophy of Souvenirs”, Denielle M. Lasusa seeks to address some of the rationale behind our compulsion to collect souvenirs. Lasusa argues that along with symbolic value souvenir collecting sheds light into “one’s tacit employment of a methodology by which he or she builds an archive of personal history and gives himself or herself a sense of meaning. We find aspects of all of these philosophical issues when we begin to unpack the souvenir-filled suitcases of contemporary tourists.” This is how Lasusa begins her exploration of the meaning behind souvenir collecting, and it seems to me that it begins with a rather broad and assumption about the practice. First, she indeed raises it to a “practice”, something that has method and purpose, and therefore suggests that “collecting” is necessarily connected to a need to construct meaning.
But what if, for argument’s sake, we think of this practice not as “souvenir collecting” but “souvenir purchasing.” How would a simple change in terminology impact how we think about it? Is it possible then that purchasing a souvenir could be considered merely a compulsive “act”, a “re-enactment” if you will of what is expected of the typical tourist (much as the requisite photograph with the Eiffel if one should ever visit Paris)? Could such an act then be raised on the pedestal of a methodology by which we give ourselves meaning? Or has the act been co-opted by what we might call the conspicuous consumption of cultural symbols? If that is the case, then much like the person who cannot stop from compulsively buying new pairs of shoes that they might never wear and sit idly in boxes, we might have over time robbed “souvenir collecting” from its potential to signify anything else than the completion of rote behavior that does not register long after we have returned home and resumed our day-to-day lives.
That is not to say, of course, that purchasing souvenirs does not have significant meaning for many people. In many instances souvenirs are proudly displayed in people’s homes – from a miniature spoon collection hung on a wall to snow globes adorning shelves to thoughtful gifts brought home from a loved one. It also has significant impact that we often do not even consider when engaging in the act. When purchasing souvenirs, as Lasusa mentions, we must also recognize that “it is not necessarily [an] ethically benign activit[y]; there are myriad economic, cultural, social, political, and ethical implications of these modern behaviors in increasingly globalized world, each of which deserves critical evaluative judgments from various perspectives.” For example, and this is only one of many such critical approaches, tourism and its related activities such as the selling of souvenirs, often provides jobs to local peoples and plays a crucial part in the local economy, while also possibly sustaining unethical practices such as low wages and less than desirable working conditions.
Lasusa ends this way: “Perhaps these arguments will find fruition elsewhere—for, indeed, they are important evaluative claims which ought to be explored—but the fact remains that I, too, have done my fair share of souvenir collecting. I have a shoebox full of pamphlets, ticket stubs, postcards, and photographs. I, like the character of Kurt Vonnegut’s claim, am trying to construct a life that makes sense from the things found in gift shops. Thus, for the purpose of this essay, I am content to simply argue that souvenir collecting is, in fact, meaningful as a tool for the construction of the (post)modern identity—that it can, in fact, tell us something about ourselves and our world.”
I want to agree with the first part of her claim, that there are important evaluative claims to be made surrounding the reasons for why we collect souvenirs and the impact it might have beyond the acquisition of the “thing” itself. But I am not so sure that I fully embrace her claim that we purchase souvenirs because we are “trying to construct a life” and that it is always a “meaningful tool”. I am also not sure that I can disagree entirely, and this project itself is a testament to our belief in the importance of materiality to shaping one’s identity. What “I am content simply to argue”, to borrow Lasusa’s own words here, is that at times the fine line between meaning and meaningless makes it difficult to know how to approach and assess our relationship to material objects.
Does the fact that I keep a tangle of keychains (sans keys) in a drawer imply that they “mean” something to me? Do those objects play a role in “constructing” a life? Or do they simply (or perhaps in even more complex way) “tell us something about ourselves and our world”? Perhaps they tell us that someone is a hoarder, a compulsive shopper, a collector who resells for profit, and perhaps it helps shed light on the complicated relationships we have with the places and people we visit, and why it is necessary to have a “calling card” to prove one’s travels. I raise these questions because they are all possibilities, and because I’m still trying to make sense of – and to find out if there is any sense in – that 7-ball keychain joined at the ring to a carabiner stamped with the name of my Alma Mater.
And then there is the bottle opener keychain with a picture of the skyline of New York City, the iconic Twin Towers still visible. I assume that it was purchased soon after my arrival in American in the early 90s, an ironic calling card from a place where I would not leave again, and which I could only attribute to “it’s just what you do when you see New York for the first time.” And after that initial purchase it sat tucked away in various boxes and drawers, never actually used for anything – neither to hold keys, not to open any bottles. It had lost all function and all meaning. Today, excavated from its storage space, it has become once again an object with meaning, through no intention of my own. There was no tacit methodology behind its preservation, no trying to make meaning – that, I realize, it does now on its own in accordance with the course of history, of which we, and all of our things, are inextricably connected.
There are times when I am like a magpie, or to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, "a black crow flying...diving down to pick up on every shiny little thing." Of course, much of what I stop to pick up along a sidewalk, or perhaps while exploring a vacated apartment, is only shiny in my mind's eye. Take, for example, the cigarette break at work during where I passed what I thought to be a dark brown piece of corrugated cardboard in the alley. At first I merely thought about the ways that litter seems to gather and become especially prominent on blustery days, but as I was heading back something about the shape of it caught my attention. It was then I noticed that the object was actually plastic, a milk-chocolate-brownie-colored piece that looked as if someone had nibbled off its edges. On even closer inspection I realized it was the bas relief of a structure, a souvenir depicting Washington Cathedral, and not far from it were the two broken corners that completed its frame. I picked up and put the pieces in my pants’ pocket, wondering if someone in a fit of pique had hurled it from a window or if a gust had come through that person's cubicle and tore it off the wall. I could picture it sailing, a tiny raft, a bit of refuse on its journey, quite happy to be saved by a garbage picker who just happened to walk by.
What will I do with this thing? I don’t know yet. Maybe glue it together and use it for rubbings, for stencils? Incorporate it into some future art piece?
All of the spaces where I've lived have accumulated these sort of fragments, not necessarily organized in any sort of cohesive fashion, nor even stored intelligently for preservation purposes. I am a dumpster diver with snobbish aesthetics, a bag person with a strange artistic strain. There used to be some sort of guilt or shame about this, but as I've gotten older and as much of this detritus has found its place in various art projects, I've come to the conclusion that this quirk in my nature might be doing the environment some good and is far less macabre than it might appear.
On occasion I may be asked where a particular scrap originated from – an arrowhead, jewelry bit or old lighter holder depicting a jade whale – before winding up in a mixed media artwork, but many of these things now have a sort of mist about their roots, keeping their secrets like curves within sea shells. This is the case even for materials I have painted on and glued things to, for I am also a recycler of found canvasses and paintings that others have chucked. Sometimes I decide either to paint over them and sometimes I allow details of the original composition to come through.
I have two equally distinct memories of how I came across an old three-piece mirror I instantly recognized as a future “altarpiece”, but again there is that mistiness about location. It is the seeing and bringing home of the actual object that is most clear. The mirrors were still attached to the backing, their shininess giving them away in the darkness in a pile of trash. Solitary insomniac hours are a good time to rummage through what others have discarded.
In any case, vanity be damned (though I kept them and later used them as backings in makeshift tableaus) I wasn't really interested in the mirrors. They caught my attention initially, but it was the shape of the backing, the curves of the three panels, held together by a couple of somewhat rusty hinges that had really called to me. Seeing a potential triptych altarpiece in a junked mirror is just the sort of thing that gives me the frisson of creative excitement – the wondering about exactly what images would arise as I removed the mirrors for instance, or the technical aspects of canvas vs. paper as a surface for the backing. And there is also excitement in thinking that this choice of ultimately composing angels on the piece – the sweep of their wings, their eternal task such as dropping rose petals – was offered to me by what somebody else had tossed out.
The complete altarpiece is now stowed away in a zipped pillowcase in my own cellar. After I die it may one day find itself heaped with rest of my work on its way to a landfill, just another orphaned object among many. It seems to me the triptych acknowledges that fate with something like tender compassion and grace – and for that I am grateful.
~Stephen Mead is a New York-based artist and writer. His latest work is an art-text hybrid, "According to the Order of Nature (We too are Cosmos Made)". He is also working on a memoir, "A Thousand Beautiful Things", which consists of ruminations on the rooms where he resides and the objects they contain.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.