Saturday, January 21, 2012
Camellias are blooming everywhere...
This time of year I spend a lot of time missing my late sister. A real Card if there ever was one and a wit as dry as Virginia Ham. And my dad. Both their birthdays fall in January. I miss them more as the years pass, not less. Too little time is life.
For today at least Spring has rested her tender warm breast on the coast of Carolina. I realize I won't be here for the real thing in March, so decided to venture out for a long stroll, the first exercise I've had in days, wending my way through the neighborhood streets to the grassy path that follows the Burnt Mill Creek Watershed, heading north past the cemeteries, imagining a life in gracious homes with multiple porches and swings, the picture of southern leisure. I am forever gazing at them longingly, enviously, as they speak of security, a sense of confidence in the future – even in so much as the following afternoon – I seem to lack at times.
A few daffodils, a lone pink hyacinth and a young forsythia making exploratory efforts into the warm breeze. Rosemary everywhere, offering weak branches of lavender fleurettes. I love the little whirlwinds spinning through the streets, showing off in perfect circle patterns as they sweep up swirls of leaves into baby hurricanes, a reminder of the larger version to come in May.
An abandoned bird's nest sits high among the bare branches of a crape myrtle. (I am deeply covetous of birds' nests. I possess a small but telling collection packed away somewhere in a frozen storage facility up North.) This one brings to mind a first visit years ago to the lair of a now deceased friend. The first thing you saw entering his massive domicile, an old cannery in the wilds of Maine, was a walled collection of bird nests. There were nests of every variety, dozens of them, stacked maybe seven feet high, five feet or more across. Each nest had been tucked in a bed of straw, the straw laid in its own, authentically old, turned- sideways wooden crate (undoubtedly specially gathered for this purpose.) These were stacked precisely, corner to corner meeting perfectly, one on top of another to form a wall. Methodically. The man's forte was Method, perfect method. With an eye to perfect Order.
Looking more closely you could see each nest was neatly tagged – it's location and date of discovery noted on an antique paper luggage tag, typed on an old typewriter, as though to preserve not only things but a way of doing things, the proper way, with standards, one might say.
It took hours to tour his "home". The bird nest collection was just a greeting, a hint of things to come. The vast caverns housing his various collections seemed unending: giant wood beams, door handles, latches, old doors all organized by size or style or use: mirrors, kitchenware, windows, chairs, sheet metal, copper, tools of every possible variety, axes, hammers, pliers, screws, nuts, bolts, nails, rivets in enormous scavenged steel bins, typewriters, anything mechanical you can imagine, drill presses, power tools, thousands and thousands of things, all categorized and stored accordingly. You could have built and outfitted a three masted schooner and a modern battleship and a house with the contents of his barns. It was fascinating and exhausting just touring the place. I can't imagine the committed energy it took to organize it all so well. The entire ridge of the center "barn" supported a long line of old lawn mowers, "to keep the birds off".
He was easily Most Well-Organized Hoarder of the Century. One can't help but be astounded in the presence of such obsessive possession and hyper-organization. Because most people who hoard things do so out of fear and greed; they guzzle and forget, and don't manage their things very well, do they? But this man wanted to and did care for the things "society" had cast off. He treated them respectfully, his "finds". Few people ever saw his collection. In other circumstances, when such hoarding is enforced and financed, we call such people museum curators. And he was, in his way; there was love and magic and beauty in what he'd accomplished. But to what end? On the other hand, why not?
He was, by trade, a welder, a sculptor, and a perfectionist. Perhaps the nature of such a man is a tightly wound tendency to hoard and preserve things in case they're needed. Practical, that is. And we all have our little keepsakes, reminders of what was in our lives. But one caught the spirit there of a past he imagined was better than the present, a common emotion today. Folks like Ralph Lauren have made a fortune capitalizing on this particular malaise. Yet you have to wonder if, when this thinking becomes obsessive, it isn't an admission of defeat before you're even out of the gate, a surrender, a refusal to be fully alive in the present, to imagine a desirable future.
He very rarely sold things. His goal seemed to be simply accumulating and preserving things from a past that no longer existed in the event they might be ignored, or needed, (though I don't know he ever made plans along those lines). Perhaps his intention was to imagine and reconstruct a different past for himself by living among what were discarded bits of other people's lives.
But it's the memory of those nesting boxes that came to me today, the first "statement" made when you entered his home. A warning to visitors, like Dante's "Abandon hope...". The message? I am a tender bird. With a deep desire to be cared for, to be loved, to be able to love in return, like he did the nests, displaying them so lovingly. As if to say, "this is all I really want, to find this, a safe nest. This is what I need someone to do for me. "
Alas, all those things, however well-ordered, did not a safe nest make. In the end, despite his efforts at a tidy life among literally millions of everso orderly things, and despite his deep yearning otherwise, he drowned in his own perfectionism and unmet expectations, perhaps trapped by misguided intentions, or vicious voices from an inescapable past, or maybe he just felt unappreciated. He wouldn't be the first blazingly creative soul to feel that. Unable to find or recognize the love he sought, he blew his brains out.
I remember he once asked me how I could manage to carry on every day in the face of life's disappointments. I replied that I was just so damn curious about what life had in store, what was around the next corner, whatever might enchant me next. There was always something. He looked at me dolefully, like I was mad, or he was. At any rate, baffled that I could see life this way. A new spring could not rouse his spirit. He'd lost the ability to be delighted or encouraged by something as small as a weak pink hyacinth braving January's wind. It broke my heart.
Today the springlike weather and the memory of that moment remind me of something I heard. "There are no bad decisions. There are only choices we make and what we then do with the results." It's the fact of those choices and the power we have to make them that eludes us.