Archaeology of a Life
A few weeks ago, my mother came to me and said, with no preamble: “Amy, you have to clean up your room. Immediately. The mess in there is driving me completely insane.” Now, the fact that, as a 24-year-old, my mother is still telling me to clean up my room is disturbing in more ways than one. Firstly, I’m still living at home, and though I’m supremely grateful to my very generous parents to allow me to move home after my college graduation, I am desperate for my own space as an adult. Secondly, the fact that my mother still feels the need to tell me that MY room is driving HER crazy is a bit worrying: though to be fair, MY room is in HER house, so you would think the least I could do would be to keep it clean.
So it was with rather a begrudging attitude that I began to clean out the small space that’s been mine since I was 10 and my brother went off to UC Berkeley, allowing me to sneak in and take over his previously rave-esque room. Now, I’ve long known that I have some hoarder tendencies: I am extremely nostalgic, and am infamous for keeping EVERYTHING. However, as I stood in the middle of my rooms with my trash bags, wondering where to begin, I gave myself a stern pep-talk. “Grow up,” I told myself. “These bits of paper, cards, old clothes, boxes, are nothing. They have been in your life, but they are not the substance of your life. You can live without them. Be ruthless with yourself.”
You see, being an avid lover of books, I’m inclined to attach metaphorical significance to pretty much everything in my life. After having graduated in May, I have not been able to find a full-time job, and have found myself weighed down by feelings of inequity and inability. I know that theoretically, I’m smart, but what good is intelligence when you’re not using it to solve problems, or create things, or just generally moving in a positive direction? For a long time, I have felt weighed down by the clutter that the last few years of feeling ill-suited to the work I have chosen. In my creative writing program I felt surrounded by people who I felt were smarter, more talented, and more driven than me, and it was with a sense of high dudgeon (having fallen out with my thesis advisor) that I left school, wondering what to do after having gone through an existential crisis and personal breakdown. I even went so far as to buy the song from Pocahontas II, ‘Where Do I Go From Here,’ and play it on repeat, a fact of which I am only slightly ashamed.
So even though on the surface I was annoyed at having been pushed into cleaning up my crap, I was also excited at the opportunity to take a step towards removing extraneous clutter from both my room and my head.
And so it began. I started by removing the topmost layer of debris, the boxes, cases, and random tupperware of stuff that I’d brought home when I’d moved out of my sorority house after having finished college, including such random objects as a never-opened bag of M&Ms and some confetti that the chapter parents’ club had put into one of my birthday cards. Shifting all of it aside and throwing most of it away allowed me to open up a corner of my room I literally had not seen in years, prime real estate in front of my window: immediately I felt I could breathe better, as though the combined weight of all of it had been sitting on my lungs.
Next came the long credenza under my windows which, in the past few years, has simply become a repository for the stuff that I dump for lack of a better place. Little by little, I managed to clear the things that littered the surface, finally seeing the mock wood texture that had been buried for an age. Off of the lower shelves came the old rolls of film that I had shot on the borrowed Pentax when I was first learning photography and the prints which I had done myself, spending my free periods and free afternoons in my high school’s darkroom, feeling more at home with the tubs of noxious chemicals than my classmates, spending ages on the delicate balance of light exposure, watching the images bloom out the white photo paper.
Out of the desk drawers came copies of short stories given to me over the years by teachers who had seen something in me, and given me copies of Fitzgerald and Chekhov to read so that I could find out what I liked about literature and hone the style of writing that they knew would one day come from me even when I didn’t know that it would, when years had elapsed between one instance of picking up a pen and another and I was stuck in the idea of becoming a doctor when I had no idea what to make of chemistry.
Finally, after about five hours came the true Eureka moment; out of one of the credenza’s smaller compartments came a box overflowing with pictures that told the story of my life. Many of them were the standard photos that accompany a happy childhood with family; any combination of some or all of my four siblings and my chubby baby self, my dad and me on hikes, my mom sitting on my bunk bed at camp. I flipped through them, one after the other, and came upon one that seemed the most telling: I was maybe two or three, in a little sailor dress with my hand stuck in my mouth, looking at something outside of the frame of the picture. Standing behind me, looking beautiful as she always did, was my grandma Martha, my mother’s mother. It wasn’t until she died, shortly after I turned twenty, that I realized how truly extraordinary my grandma was; she was the only woman in her class in pharmacy school in Mexico City, moved to New York with barely any English to marry my grandfather, and worked so hard to rebuild her life and the lives of my grandfather, my mother and my two uncles when they moved to LA after our family met with bad luck in Mexico City. To me, though, she was always just Grandma: stunningly fashionable, specific to death about how she liked her coffee made and her meat cooked, and more business savvy than the best of them. She taught me to read on the Wednesdays when she would pick me up from Kindergarten, because my mom worked late on Wednesdays, effectively shaping my future.
This photo, of me with this woman who physically informed my existence for twenty years (I’m not joking; I inherited my talent with accessories from her) and metaphorically informed my future, stunned me with both its simplicity and the meaning behind it. She has forever been behind me, giving me my Hungarian identity, my love of books and fashion, and an appreciation for perfectly made coffee.
Here, again, is the opportunity for another metaphor: archaeology. Thanks to Indiana Jones, archaeology is seen as an adventurous and Romantic pursuit, something you do with an awesome wide-brimmed hat and a whip, hoping you don’t get attacked by snakes. Truthfully, archaeology is pretty boring. Having volunteered on an archaeological dig, I can tell you that it’s mostly hoping, as you sift your hands through lots…and lots… and LOTS of dirt, that you’ll find something exciting. That’s really all it is: patience, hope, and dirt. Although, the snake part is pretty accurate.
Here, I realized that what I had thought was just a banal chore had really been an opportunity to dig through the dirt of my life (again, metaphorical: my room is not dirty, just messy) in order to get back to the hobbies, the art, and the people who had initially shaped me. By sifting through the accumulated refuse of years, of trying out different activities and versions of myself, I had been allowed to come back and see why I had chosen the life and vocation I had.
Art is pain. I don’t mean in a figurative sense, as in that the creation of art acts as an exorcism of the emotional pain that one might have experienced in the past. I mean that the creation process is really and truly agonizing. Most of the time I have come away with a headache. Having spent eighteen years defining myself as a writer, every single day that I have sat down to hone my craft has been an experience akin to a tooth extraction: extremely painful and yet a joyful relief when you have something down on your page, and because no one has the access to your mind that you do, no one can create in the same way that you can. Even more of a relief, though, is the moment when you realize that this feeling is not unique to you. One of the parts of feeling so lonely in college was realizing that those writers whom I’d envied were going through very similar processes to mine. The best and most concise summary of being an artist can be summed up in two lines that I found on Tumblr a few months ago:
Person in coffeeshop: I’m an artist.
Me: Oh great! How much do you cry?
I suppose the bottom line of this post, and the line I’m going to continue following on this forum, is that as an artist, there are three things you should always, ALWAYS remember for success:
- Who you are and why,
- If we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that,
- Never write without coffee (depending on your style, this could be substituted for alcohol: since living in Ireland, I personally enjoy the combination of the two).
P.S.: I did find something interesting on that dig: an old shard of pottery from 1800 years ago with a dog’s paw print on it. I still have it.