As I’ve aged, certain experiences seemed to have lodge in my psyche, certain words sticking in my head. For example, of all the poetry and prose I’ve studied, an elementary school poem that compared a grey squirrel to a coffee pot, WB Yeats’ warning that “ things fall apart”, and Frost’s assurance that “home is the place” have become my mantras: these signposts emerging over and over, their phrases bubbling up from years back. And just yesterday, Sartre’s explanation of why we are unable to throw away selected objects from our childhood.
Like many others, I have been decluttering. I’m definitely not a hoarder, but I have an art room where I stack my past drawings and over time, the pile has mushroomed and overgrown much like deepsunk weeds, along with boxes, empty vases and art supplies, for glass and lino printing, oil painting, acrylics, pastels. And because these days of corona virus demand we do something productive as we are confined inside, I’ve began to sort out, clean up and trash what is not essential- at least in the basement.
The tottering overflowing piles of nude studies reveal I used to be a much better artist, once able to commandeer colour in a more sophisticated way, defining more accurately form and structure , and surprisingly I once seemed to know where value could highlight slouching anatomy . In short, my progress has regressed and damnit! I really should be so much better than I am. As I follow Croquis Café daily and listen to Kenzo at Lovelife Drawing online, their concise instruction should not be fresh information, but as I enjoy drawing, I have to shrug my shoulders and begin all over again, a perpetual newbie.
But as I forged ahead to separate a few good paintings from the rest, I discover a box of “ Children’s Books” beneath a precarious stack of gesture drawings. Opening it to dislodge more of the clutter, I find what else? Children’s Books. There’s AlligatorPie by Dennis Lee,
Alligator pie, alligator pie
If I don’t get some, I think I’m gonna due.
Give away the green grass, give away the sky, but don’t give away my alligator pie.
At present, we’ve had to give away so much.
But some things, like bits of those poems from the past refuse to budge and stick.
That’s what Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas did in La Nausee in my first year at university. In that French class, that I recall reading in translation, I learned that we build our identity from objects with which we’ve had relationships. Like loving our ratty teddy bears who were always around when we were unable to sleep or were angry. Or our hairbrushes that collected strands of our unruly hair as we outgrew their bristly intrusion on our scalps. And because these silent witnesses carried a sense of who we were and where we had been, we kept them. At least, a few. They established a panacea of the soul, evidence we had existed in another time and place , things that helped to construct our present identities.
It is for these reasons that I am unable to discard a dress for my elder daughter’s wedding eleven years ago. It’s a black silk Escada with stunning black epaulettes, a dress that I stalked until it went on sale, a dress for a moment in my life when my daughter married in our house festooned with orange and red flowers. I wore it a few times after, and now with the shift in age and body shape, it pulls too much in all the wrong places, yet it hangs in my closet, a sweet reminder like a floral scent that makes me smile. In deed, there are other pieces barely worn, but whose textures or design catapult me to a state of joy.
Because I’m an introvert and books provide me with a safe way to navigate the world and meet people, books that overflow every nook and cranny are, too, a mainstay in my house. Over the years I’ve tried to pare back, although why my Grade 11 Sound and Sense survived the cut along with one of my grade 12 students project books of Senor Coffee Bean. I can recapture the passion that went into a project to segue a part of One Hundred Years of Solitude into something else .
In the box designated Children’s Books, I discover books from my own children’s youth. I surmise that maybe my grandsons might find some of interest. Of course, there were yellowed CS Lewis Narnia spinoffs, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, baseball story books, Choose Your Own Adventure, French comic books( they are in immersion as their father was), Star Wars stories, Gary Larson’s Doonesberry soft covers, so I sorted and separated , trying to think from the minds of my 8 and 11 year old grandsons: one who labored for hours on Rainbow Loom and is now fixated on Survivor; the other who gobbles up multiplication tables and paints abstract canvases, but both so drawn to iPads that separating them from screens is a cry for war.
I made three piles for my three children although some of the books had yellowing curling edges. My husband warned the boys will never look at them. However, when I called my son he was willing to take a look. In these days of no schooling, he agreed. “No way”, reproached Howard, my husband, “They’ll all end up in the trash.”
Last night as my son checked in on us and was admonishing the boys to brush their teeth properly, he shared that the boys, my sparkling wonderful grandsons, had spent the entire day recreating Camilla Gryski’s String Games from the load of books. They would demonstrate their prowess to us on Facebook later.
My son half mumbled about a wasted day, but former educator that I am, disagreed. Those string puzzles required brain and body connections, sequencing, patterning, hand- eye coordination , focus and word following. My son still didn’t agree and his hope that the boys might find future work as string magicians was not a welcoming thought. Yet he grinned , for the boys had been happy, challenged and engaged.
And I was happy too- I had offered a tool, an old tool, a book, that had caught them up in these terrible days of plague when they had not been able to maintain their regular lives of school and friends and activities. My decluttering had availed positive purpose beyond keeping me sane and indoors.
I thought back about Sartre and the need to keep those things we once felt precious. But I suppose there comes a time when we are able to give them away, dispense with them, particularly as we grow old, hoping that some kernel of our own past will lodge in the present and create memories for the future.
The old drawings reminded me my parents were right and my desire to pursue art would not have ended successfully, but the books that had assuaged my shyness, my loneliness , my otherness and had been cultivated at university had laid a fertile soil for the person I would become: a teacher, an educator. Maybe we grow old, and our lives are in deed measured out by coffee spoons, but as long as the coffee had tasted good and we were satisfied, we can acknowledge, unlike Prufrock, a life of some purpose, particularly recorded in those things we have saved, secreted away- now to be discarded or transferred to those we love.