I have a shoebox of my sister’s old belongings, tucked away in a cupboard in my room.
Belongings is an odd word. I look at the objects nestled against each other and I find it hard to connect them to the woman, my sibling, who has not touched them in years.
I have had this box for years.
Once, she had a life here where I am, where we both grew up. She had a car, a Perodua Kancil with a roof that felt like tin, a rude sign suctioned to the back window and a small stuffed whale sitting guard on the dashboard. She lived with her father in both his houses in faraway suburbs, she lived with a boyfriend past tolls in half-empty buildings, she lived on campus, she lived with us in our university house, she lived in a room in a house by the highway.
Enough time has passed from when those things were facts for them to feel like remembered dreams.
Does the pencil from London with a palace guard eraser still wrapped in plastic belong to her? And the glass containers she stole as a young science student in UM? There are photos of people she no longer speaks to. Have they each relinquished each other? The owner, the object?
In the box, there is a long cut of white gauzy ribbon, each end cut at an angle. I don’t know where or what it’s from. My sister tries to be sentimental but she does not hoard objects like I do, she does not make plans for them beyond their single use. I wonder why she kept it, who gave her the present it must have wrapped, what she intended it to be. A keepsake? A reminder? A ribbon to reuse for some other imagined gift? I have kept this box so long the ribbon feels like it is mine. I still don’t know what it is meant to do.
An object is often created with intent. It is purposed by nature. A box’s purpose is to contain, to store. But what then? In my bedroom there is a green plastic bag that holds the cut up remains of the packing boxes that brought home the things that populated my four years in Melbourne. Those things have been unpacked or stored, and now I feel a passing, detached sadness every time my eyes pass over these scraps. Maybe that is their new use.
Last year, I came home for a brief time in July. I spent my days culling photos from yellowed family albums, ripping the photographs from their plastic windows.
I went through a dozen or so of these large tomes, large relics of the lost people of my childhood. I was not the person who took the photos, who left their fingerprints on the glossy prints, who slid the squares into the plastic slots, who wrote on the backs in ballpoint pen. I was, as always, digging up graves, attempting to reverse the actions of others as a way of travelling in time.
I discovered that my old family had secrets. They came in the form of hidden multiples in the plastic pockets of old photo albums. A picture once removed could reveal its many twins tucked behind it, an album full of déjà vu. I took these unnecessary repetitions and put them in a shoebox, along with kept shots of blurry faces, of sunny washes of overexposure, of forgotten strangers, of nondescript scenes of nature, of white swaths of snow.
And when I filled this box, I found I could not throw it away. I imagined a stranger finding these discarded twins, I imagined them joining the photos of other families, of other strangers. I imagined the things unfamiliar eyes could see and what unfamiliar minds could invent about the beloved people in the photo. I thought about failing the eyes that took the original, about failing their intent, about meddling with purpose.
I wrote an instruction on the box, and told myself these were “To shred.” The bold letters belie a steadiness I still do not feel.
Some of these old photos have found their way into a plastic box I keep by my desk, balanced precariously on my empty suitcase. They join new photos that I took myself, photos given to me in my new and growing life. They join the other materials I mean to make into something meaningful.
When I returned home from a stint in Europe, I brought back with me three thick packets of paper. Ticket stubs, concert wristbands, museum programs, city maps, postcards, flyers. I picked up advertisements and circulars in French, German, Portuguese, Spanish.
Going through them a month after my flight home was an exercise in bemusement and unexplained fatigue. I remembered the vague motivation behind every scrap. The bold type, the colourful pattern, the pictures of art, the evocative phrase in a language I didn’t know, the doodle of a flower I thought I could use. The map that helped me navigate Luzern, the flyer a man on the street gave me in Paris, the interesting business card of a quiet cafe. I had wanted to quilt my three months into something large and encompassing, a repurposed collage of every fleeting and unshared moment that could take all the feelings I experienced in my time away from within myself and put them out into the world.
The distance time can put between the very hopes you nursed just yesterday.
In high school, a girl painted a small block of wood in rainbow colours, with yellow stars on a black background, in stripes of colour, with one side bearing a message to me. I have forgotten her name. The block is the shape of a Jenga piece, a piano key, a loose piece of parquet flooring. It is small, and very pretty.
There are things in one’s life that are small and very pretty and not much else. Anyone who knows this is anyone who picks up shells from a walk on the beach, or a leaf, or a curiously shaped rock, or a piece of warped plastic in the shape of a swan.
Some of my pretties are:
- a piece of tourist kitsch from Vietnam
- pieces of sea glass (remnants of someone’s wild party on a boat, I’m sure)
- a small metal box with a padded interior that can hold a short stack of coins
- the black metal giraffe that came off a pair of dearly missed earrings
- a gold name tag with my misspelled name
- a plastic jewel from a chandelier
- the plastic magnifying card that came with an old book of maps
- a green stone turtle whose origins I have forgotten
- a free butterfly bookmark from Reader’s Digest
- the orange lanyard and wristband from a music festival I went to in Portugal
I keep them in a small yellow box, another pretty almost useless thing – a gift from my one year in an American primary school. The box is a time capsule I have not buried, and the purposelessness of everything it contains brings me a direct joy I cannot experience with the other boxes. I do not ask anything of the broken giraffe except that it remain in my life even as I lost the use of a favourite accessory. So far, it is happy to comply.
I could no more throw away the blue cue chalk in my sister’s shoebox than I could burn her letters to our mother. My yellow box contains a videotape of a sleepover I had with my two friends when we were 14 – I no longer have a machine to play it on. That my father took 20 pictures of the snow in our first winter in Bloomington, the place where I was born, means more to me than the extra space it might take to house 20 photos of sheer white. Until this year, I had not seen snow for 15 years.
The emotional life of objects is a difficult thing to track if only because what it means is simply the emotional life of human beings. A friend once got in a fight with her grandmother for refusing to wear a dress made from the fabric her grandmother had bought for her mother, years ago for a wedding that never happened. Was my friend obliged to respect the original purpose of this object, thrust upon her without asking? She adored the existence of the fabric and its lovely intent, but she could live with it remaining as it was, unsewn and unfulfilled.
Such a large amount of the flotsam and jetsam that wash up in our lives are objects abandoned by purpose, left untethered to float through time.
In all our acquisitions, in all our attempts to build ourselves bridges to the future and the past with all our beloved belongings, perhaps the one thing we seek but cannot find in all our objects is an anchor.
A Contracted Life is intended as a place to explore and examine the negative spaces in life — the things a person don’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, can’t do. A reflection of regrets, remorse and the remembered omissions, stopgaps and stumbles – the snags necessary to a full lived life.