The song of stuff has been sung before. Leah Cohen, most notably, perhaps, takes her readers deep into the secret life of stuff, telling the story beneath the ordinariness of ordinary objects in Glass Paper Beans (no, she was not my inspiration for three word titles although I admit hers does roll off the tongue rather well). The verses I can add to this song change the tune and genre: if Leah’s work was a neoMarxist antifetishistic workers’ chant in ¾ time, then mine is an art song, abstract and deeply personal and maybe a little bizarre (random, I believe is the “in” word).
I write in my bed, pillows propped against the headboard. My computer sits atop an old pine table in the corner. The room is large by any standard: a king-sized bed with a cross-section of an enormous tree for a headboard and an even more massive stump from the same tree as a base sits catty-corner to an angled wall with a stained glass window allowing light into the bathroom. There is enough room between the bed and the dogs’ bed for me to stretch out a yoga mat and practice asanas with both dogs getting involved. The floor is wideboard pine milled from trees that grew on this land, scarred by three years of dogs straining for purchase on the slippery wood. I designed all the moldings and Tom milled them. Dormers and knee walls break up any sense of box; this room has 15 different walls.
On the wall closest to my computer there hangs a portrait of my father, painted in the 1940s (I think) by his uncle, Jack Lubin. Next to that, on the other side of the window, hangs my great-grandfather’s passport. That piece of paper, dated 1895, enabled him to leave the Ukraine and come to this country.
The desk was pulled from the flotsam and jetsam accumulated in a barn on a 300 year old dairy farm; the chair liberated from a public school’s dumpster. My antique mahogany dresser was a birthday gift to me in 1986, purchased from the Peekskill, NY Salvation Army. It still needs to be refinished. The printer sits on a little Mexican chest my neighbor, three houses and two counties ago, was getting rid of. On my nightstand there sits a framed piece of eagle down personally given to me by one of the Ashokan bald eagles.
The room is a contradiction: the house is brand new. A modular, this room was intended to be two smaller bedrooms, but Tom left out some walls on purpose. The room is finished to feel real, not Home Depot done, but completed with richness and heft, and a sense of place. It is done so that being here feels satisfying, not reeking of plastic and exploitation.
Story upon story swells and then recedes, another ever ready behind it, each item full to bursting. My history, my very ancestry, can be read from the walls of this room. I am surrounded and held, remembered and remembering. I stole an hour from all else on this gorgeously rainy summer morning to hole up in here and write, but in the blankness and the patter of rain through the open windows, I am deserted by the muse and these stories – the stories of all these items – vie for an audience.
We live in a crazy time – unprecedented connections are possible. The internet connects me with strangers (mostly spammers) from all over the world. Paralleling that, everyday items, from my keyboard to my wineglass come to my home from all over the world. For me it is a never ending struggle to prioritize the real – to be real, interact with real people, eat real food, surround myself with real items. I want the relationships behind the stuff to be obvious, transparent, and I want to know that the stuff I surround myself with hasn’t harmed anyone on its way to my house. I decorate with my great uncle’s painting, a 1920s chunk of architectural ephemera purchased at a yard sale, a piece of bracket fungus from the backyard, a handmade collage (made by the inimitable Patti Gibbons), and I revel in the realization of a life I always wanted. I am successful – I have done it to the best of my ability (ok, I didn’t carve this computer out of rocks mined here in my backyard). It makes me happy.
It also suffocates. These stories and their layers of meaning and memories can be too much. Sometimes I crave emptiness and space. I sit to write, or lie down to dream and every place I try to rest my eyes hollers back a grand “Howdy! Remember me? Let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane, shall we?” Nothing is plain and simple. Nothing is vapid or meaningless. Like when I go to The Bakery in New Paltz to write, only to be infuriated by the chatter of other patrons, I sit here in my room and feel the walls close in, reverberating with the clang and blast of personal history.
And ultimately, it is all ok. It is the real world of the writer-artist-real person of this age – we are connected in this bizarre simulated, fetishized world, and we strive to be connected in Real Life. And connection is always a dance, a Push-Me-Pull-You of pursuing and distancing, inhaling and exhaling. This is a work of observation, not critique or complaint. This – the ebb and flow – just is.