Thursday, August 25, 2011
Making a Place of Repair Where We Live (or The Art of Getting Rid of Shit)
The August rains are here, a moody swath of cloud pulled across the sky above south central Alaska, the porch shiny with wet from a recent squall, the sheets limp on the line. I sit at my desk after another bout of purging stuff from the house. When I returned home after a year away for breast cancer treatment, I wrote in this blog of ransacking the house, emptying cupboards, sorting, tossing, recycling, releasing, a manic behavior that consumed me for days. Now, I've done it again, albeit to a lesser extent, this time inspired by my stepdaughter Elli, who came home for her sister's wedding. In two days she returns to Walla Walla, Washington to finish her last semester of college. Last night, after dinner, after dessert at the neighbor's house, after tidying up the kitchen before bed, I wandered into her bedroom as I did so many times when she was a kid and teen. Back then, I sat on her floor grading papers or reading while she did her homework, or I plopped on her bed to chat with her as she got ready for sleep. In recent years, I sat with her as she sorted through boxes of papers and old journals. This time, she did the major purge, pulling everything down from book and closet shelves. Cardboard boxes on the floor are filled with what her mother and father call "dookie," saved things, detritus, much of it tiny, some of it broken or with pieces missing, from stuffed frogs to too-small t-shirts, to children's magazines, to jewelry boxes. Finally, all of her high school class notes are in the recycling bin. We've decorated the shelves and walls with the precious things, the ones too filled with story and memory to toss. One drawer contains photographs. Another, art supplies. Yet another is a "hope chest" of mementos. We stayed up until 1 am, unable to quit. During a lull, I wandered into the kitchen and attacked the junk drawer.
It becomes compulsive, a kind of cleansing, what I want to do most of all with my own mind. What to keep, what to save? What matters? What do I think matters, but really doesn't? All three step-children are building their own lives now, the oldest married the other day, the shelves of Eve and Eivin's two-room cabin crammed with new pottery and kitchen gadgets. In Lars' closet, I have placed a box for kitchen stuff for the two-room cabin that he built this summer on his mother's land. Our lives, no matter our age, are ever in the process of transformation and recreation, revision, a constant salvaging, rearranging, reconfiguring. This is who I am, and this is what matters now, we seem to say with our saved things, the things we tuck away in boxes, bury, or release. Writing is like that too.
Today, I received an e-mail from a poet friend. When I was a graduate student, she came to Fairbanks and read from her then-new poetry collection, Divine Honors, which she wrote after undergoing breast cancer treatment. At the time, I didn't imagine I'd one day share that experience. In my thirties, a vegetarian living close to wilderness in Alaska, the idea of cancer was just that, an idea, someone else's stupid idea. What stuck with me from her craft talk about her book was the way she used a shattered, fragmented form of poetry to mimic the shattered, fragmented, piecing-back-together process of her recovery. Maybe she's the first artist who showed me how form, in art, can be an essential part of meaning, giving the inexpressible a way to emerge on a page. And perhaps that's why I constantly revise my poems, my essays, and my house. In her email, she wrote that "twenty years, many books, a good marriage, and now a new life have barely touched the cancer experience . . . I've been well since and send you the shelter of that news." I do indeed find shelter in both pieces of news. I find shelter in knowing that there is nothing strange in the strong presence of my own cancer experience a year later; I see it always out of the corner of my eye, constantly changing shape, adding its particular texture and scent and mood to my days.
I look around my writing room, at all of the things I choose to save, and at the form of the room itself, which once sheltered my newly married step-daughter. It still holds a bit of her energy. In a corner, in a laundry basket, surrounded by "sea paper" I collected from the edges of a pond in Prince William Sound a couple weeks ago (sea paper: an amalgam of sea weed, seeds, and fiber peeled of the rocks and grass), nestled among those earthy sheets is the torso cast of my pre-breast cancer body. I find myself moving that torso cast around often, from here to there. Sometimes I think I'll bring it into the woods and leave it wedged in a tree to dissolve away in the fall rains. Sometimes I hide it in the closet. Today, it's poking out of the basket, resembling something collected and meant to put away, like clean laundry. No matter where it ends up, physically, an essential aspect of it will endure.
A few years after Divine Honors, my poet friend, whose name is Hilda Raz, edited a book called Living on the Margins: Women Writers on Breast Cancer. In the introduction, she says: "This book represents a community of workers talking to each other, helping each other, making language serve new imperatives, which is what writers do. We're a community engaged in the same task, making a place of repair where we live." Yes, I see it now: writing is an act of repair as well as creation.
And perhaps this act Elli and I engaged in last night and again today is also a kind of repair. We consider what no longer works for us, is no longer a useful metaphor, no longer represents our evolving selves, and we give it away. We revise, we revision, and with some things, we repurpose. The heart of our experience, the joyful, the catastrophic, even the mundane, which is represented brokenly, incompletely, by those saved things, emerges, clearer, like the air after rain. Knowing that, we go ahead and discard all the "dookie," sure that the important stories remain.