Notes From the Waste(d) Stream #11: Sherry Decanter

img_2950The decanter’s an iconic figure – the masked man who’s been the mascot of Sandeman wines for almost a hundred years. He was a fixture in my childhood homes. He was the official mascot of my father’s Navy squadron, so everywhere there were plaques and patches bearing his (unlicensed) image. I can’t say that I’ve ever sampled one of the Sandeman wines, though my mother loved sherry. I own an improbably large number of sherry glasses for someone who doesn’t touch the stuff. Or at least hasn’t in decades. The first alcohol I ever consumed was sherry, purloined from the cabinet of my parents’ absurd freestanding bar. It tasted like cough syrup, and I didn’t drink again, really, until I’d graduated from college.

They say that your taste for drink is genetic. If so, I was always doomed. I come from a family of drinkers. At least on my mother’s side, her Irish wildcatter father with an insatiable thirst that almost destroyed his marriage and his relationship with his children. And likely killed him, his wife outliving him by decades until she died alone, her mind long lost, in a facility somewhere in El Paso. My uncle’s got the thirst too – you can tell just by hanging around him for a little bit, how his hands are a little veiny and shaky, his appreciation for mid-grade wines a little too enthusiastic. My mother had it, though she shook it off later in life for the most part. The trick for her was that once she started it was hard to stop. Not starting was the hard part. The easy part was the not stopping.

When I was younger, I was very judgmental about my parents’ behavior. Aren’t most kids? Mine smoked cigarettes (Benson & Hedges menthol 100s), a habit I detested. One year, inspired by what seems like it was a Judy Blume book, I stole a pack of cigarettes, painstakingly shook out all the tobacco and inserted rolled up notes that said “No Smoking.” I got in a good bit of trouble for that one. And it didn’t help. My mother smoked until her death, and my father would have too, if he hadn’t been in the hospital. For all of that, I took up smoking at an early age and kept at it for far longer than I should have. That wasn’t the only despised habit I adopted.

My parents drank. Socially. It was expected. When hosting parties as a military family, it was assumed that everyone would drink. They’d lock us kids in a room with a movie while they caroused. Usually I was in charge because I was the oldest. This virtually guaranteed that some kind of Lord of the Flies type scenario would play out, as in the time I convinced my brother to ride his floppy blue plastic sled down a precipitous flight of stairs, landing him in the emergency room with missing teeth and a busted face.

You figured out the signs that the adults had been drinking pretty early on – the slightly glazed eyes, the little bit of slur in their voice, the careless slump of their shoulders. We knew not to mess with them at these times, or quickly figured this out, as tempers tended to run shorter than usual after a night spent with wine, or cocktails, or both and then some port afterward just because.

My mom’s drinking wasn’t just social, though. I think it reached its roughest patch when we lived in England. We never talked about it, but I suspect that she felt very far from home, removed from her family, burdened with young children and the maintenance of a huge and drafty home while my father commuted to London for work. Maybe just dealing with a young Kate was enough to drive her to drink. In any case, she did. I’m not sure how secret it was, and it wasn’t always by herself, but there were certainly days when she was pretty lit by dinnertime. And then there was the time she came to pick me up from Girl Guides (the British version of Girl Scouts) obviously drunk in a swervy, terrifying way. In college, when I was offered drinks at parties I’d conjure this image from childhood as a way to say no. I didn’t want that for myself. I never have.

But sometimes life hands you precisely the thing you don’t want and challenges you to reckon with it. Or, more precisely, sometimes you make choices that are bad for you. Sometimes these choices are really bad not just for you, but for the people that you love.

After college, I lived in Athens, Georgia. With dozens of bars within walking distance of my office, it was a fine place to learn how to drink. I was of age, and figured that my years of abstinence proved I could handle myself. I did, for a while. I also learned that I could handle my alcohol, unusually so for someone of my build. I’d come up in a competitive culture where I was always trying to prove myself against a whole host of guys, and drinking fell naturally into what now seems like a predetermined slot in my brain. I wanted to be good at it, just like I was good at everything else. Looking back, I certainly had my share of Marion Ravenwood moments in these years.

It turns out that tolerance builds, especially if you’re hardwired for it. Soon after moving to Seattle, I discovered a love of bringing home a bottle of wine all for myself. This gave me pause, but not much. Drink became, seamlessly, an everyday thing. The question moved from “if” to “when,” and that’s the point when I should have thought more deeply about what I was doing to myself, but I didn’t.

I got better for more than a decade after leaving Seattle. I learned to have just two glasses of wine. I fell in love and that was intoxication enough for me. And then everything changed when my mother died. That’s the theme of this series, I know, but it’s especially true here. There were dark times, living in hotels while I cleaned out her house, weeks on end of dealing with tasks, and I discovered that I didn’t need to go to bars. Instead, I could buy a bottle and bring it back to the hotel room. Uh-oh.

You read these things about alcoholics and secret drinking and you think they will never happen to you. Reader, that’s wrong. It starts easily enough, restocking wine, escalating to restocking liquor, escalating further to stashing liquor, and then in its end state to hiding booze around the house. You do not, trust me, want to get this far in the process. But you may. And when you get there, it’s worth asking yourself in a real and honest way how to get back, because if you don’t, well, the ratchet only goes one way. And it’s a direction that will throw aside everything and everyone that you love in favor of the simple numbing that alcohol’s anaesthesia provides. This feels good, but it’s not good for you. If you’re someone who loves to write, it will inhibit the words from coming together for you. If you’re someone who loves to read, it will stop the words from sticking in your brain. If you’re someone who loves someone else, it will slowly make you into someone different from the person with whom they fell in love.

The slowness is critical here. It’s not one drink; it’s not two. It’s not one night; it’s not three. It’s a gradual accretion where you change from someone fun to have a beer with to someone who pours whiskey as company to sit in the bathtub alone. This can take years, but it’s no less destructive if it takes months. At the end, if you’re not paying attention, you can end up alone with only the bottle to keep you company.

The Sandeman is not the only decanter I inherited. I’ve got at least three. In addition, I’ve got about six dozen wineglasses, all crystal. There are the red glasses, the white glasses, the champagne flutes, and the big water glasses (that I often use for wine, to fool myself into thinking I’m just having one glass – technically true). If you stop to think about it, this is a shockingly large number of wine glasses. I’m no military hostess; nothing binds me to prepare to host dinners for 20. And yet I keep these things around. Who can explain why we keep our mother’s breadcrumbs close to our chest?

So I have the decanter, secreted in an invisible nook in the breakfast room.  As far as I know it’s never been filled; I think the bottle was a gift or an antique store find, because it still has a (preposterously expensive) price tag on the bottom. What’s the purpose of the decanter if not to be filled with something? Mom loved the image because it reminded her of Spain, of the good times before everything got rough around the edges, when the kids were young enough to be put to sleep early, when she was surrounded by friends who lived close to her, when she could still have a few drinks and have it not be a thing, or a fight, or an occasion for regret and remorse. Also because her name was Sandy, Sandeman had a special ring to her. I think she loved that Dad’s squadron used it as an emblem, that it made her feel close to him during those long deployments.

She would be ashamed of me, I know, for what I’ve done. But I’m done moving around bottles, and I’m done dissembling on the matter of my dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. I’ll keep the decanter, but I’ll keep it empty as a reminder that hope often thrives when empty.

Notes From the Waste Stream #10: Doha Marriott Stationary

Do you remember what it was like to write a letter? Not a thank you card (not that people write those any more) or one of those all-purpose family update Christmas card enclosures, or even a postcard, but a real letter? Do you remember how excited you were once to receive letters, maybe needing to decipher handwriting, re-reading for complex meanings, stowing it carefully in the envelope for later? Did you ever write or receive a letter on onion-skin air mail stationary, the kind that folded up to make its own envelope? Did you ever re-write a letter to make it seem more spontaneously brilliant or heartfelt, to make sure the handwriting was lucid, dreaming all the while of the response you might get?

Do you remember how good it feels to have a pen in your hand? The right kind of pen, with the right kind of ink flow and point size, pressed against the right kind of paper that gives just enough but not so much that your hand slides and your ink runs? When was the last time you wrote more than just signing your name?

I have drawers full of letters in my home. Someday I will read through the inherited letters between my parents and paternal grandparents as I try to understand their relationship and my family history. For now, those stay tucked away. The trauma of loss is still too strong to pull those out and remain unscathed. I have other letters, though, that I read from time to time that make me unreasonably happy. What I like best about them, weirdly, is their lack of context. They are often responding to a letter of mine that I may never see again – a missing partner, possibly lost to time or trash. Though I like to think that the kinds of people I write to are the kind that know better than to throw away correspondence, my view of human nature isn’t quite that rosy.

Let me just say that an email is not the same as a letter. Sure, there’s some analog nostalgia at play when I make such a claim – emails, after all, can be archived and called up in a flash, sent in mere seconds, easily sorted by author and date, and don’t take up much physical space in your house. An email is easy to send – something that cuts both ways. A letter requires more thought. Not just the sitting down to write, but the addressing of an envelope, the finding of a stamp, the waiting days to know of receipt, the uncertainty (despite the miracle of the U.S. Postal Service) of receipt. And while you may be precious about the typeface of your email, the reality is that all typed correspondence is impersonal when compared to the idiosyncrasies that handwriting allows. When I get hurried (or have a glass or two of wine), my handwriting flattens like a dangerous EKG signal. Other times, when I am particularly thoughtful, the vowels are fully formed and the consonants spike appropriately. If I am confused, sometimes my writing takes on a peculiar backwards slant, mirroring the work of my mind to reach back into the morass of events and pull them gently forward. It has rarely been described as “legible.”

As a child, I refused all attempts to train me to hold my pen in a proper manner. This means that the fourth finger on my right hand has a permanent callous and a fingernail bent with a vertical crease up the middle from four decades of use. My cursive has never been up to par, but is still for my money vastly more efficient than printing – usually when I print, it’s in reaction to anger or frustration.

Little Notebooks

Last week my husband asked for a little notebook. He was embarking on a new writing project and wanted something dedicated for that purpose. When I said I didn’t know where one might be, he said: “Surely, if there’s anything this house has in surplus, it’s little useless notebooks.” This is a true observation. When you write as much as I do – pithy observations, observations that seemed pithy at the time, character studies, emblems of anger, totems of love, short story ideas already doomed to obsolescence – you need many small notebooks.

Some years ago I was invited to interview a college professor who had recently published a collection of the writings kept in the many hundreds of tiny notebooks that Robert Frost used. They’re held in the collection of Dartmouth College’s excellent library, and they were full of incomprehensible scrawls, recursive notations, grocery lists, and all the things that I, an unknown aspiring author, keeps in my notebooks. I’ll admit that I was a little ego-boosted by the whole affair. Who among us, the society of keepers of little notebooks, doesn’t secretly fantasize that our scrawlings will one day be decoded and carefully considered like the Talmud? In the meantime, we write. We write to ourselves, and occasionally (not as often as we should), we write to others.

Writing from hotels

This used to be something I did. I’d check into a hotel, find the stationary, and dash off a letter to a loved one. I enjoyed the process of mailing, of seeing if the front desk had a stamp, of watching the letter go into a pile and hoping it made the destination unscathed. This is especially fun when writing from abroad. In the first place, there are the foreign stamps – made even more foreign by the fact that you don’t know how much money actually a stamp costs. As a child, I loved foreign stamps. I imagined their far-off provenance, steamed them off envelopes and kept them for a fantastic future increase in value. When my father died, I found out that he was the same way. I inherited volumes of worthless stamps from countries I’ve never heard of, meticulously kept as a well-licked atlas of the world. I can’t bear to get rid of them, even though I’ve been told that philately’s heyday is long past.

These days I don’t do this much anymore, especially not from domestic hotels. The front desk staff seem genuinely confused at the prospect of actual mail, rarely have a stamp, and in any case there’s not stationary available in the kind of cheaper hotels I stay in these days. But the other day I found some old stationary and decided to use it.

img_2876When I first moved to Montgomery, there was a period of a few years when I was going back and forth from the Middle East pretty regularly. Usually I was spending a week or two in Doha – the capitol of Qatar. I flew over Iran! I was there when we bombed Libya, something that caused considerable anxiety among my friends and family. I learned to register with the Embassy, to pay attention to travel alerts, even as I never felt unsafe for a single minute while in-country. Except in taxis. Doha driving makes New York seem like Dothan.

When you’re so far away, your clock gets flipped. You are 12 hours apart from your loved ones, and it gets hard to stay in touch – particularly when you are working 12 hour days. Letters become your lifeline, even when you learn that usually you arrive home before the letter takes its sweet time getting to Montgomery. There’s still a feeling of connectedness that comes from setting pen to paper, addressing the person you love thousands of miles away. You can, if you do it right, come to feel like you are speaking to them directly. Skype can’t substitute for this kind of intimacy. Neither, if you really think about it, can email. You can read someone’s heart in a letter. If you know them well enough, you can decode their cursive cadences into a context for the words on paper that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Even if the letter arrives after you are safely tucked in bed and sleeping off an epic jet lag, it still speaks to the sense of distance and longing, to the particular distance that can sit between but not separate two people who love each other to distraction.

When you write from hotels, you either do it in the bar or your room. Writing from the bar will allow you to offer a series of observations; it gives a sense of local flavor and lets you riff on the circumstances and cast of characters around you. You will describe the people, their dress, the music, the menu, your feelings at being surrounded by experiences that your loved one may never share. Writing from your room draws you deeper into yourself. It makes you think of all the times before you’ve set pen to paper. If the room is quiet and sheathed against sunrise (the better to help your jet lag), you may lapse into a meditative state, feeling as if the person is right there with you, as if they could touch your neck as you hunch over the ergonomically incorrect writing desk that even the nicest hotels have on offer. I have written letters both ways and never regretted my approach.

The point is to seize the words inside of you and make them count. The point is to bring your interior conversation out into the light and set it down for someone else to examine, with only the filter of cursive and time. The point is not to show how you are in love; the point is to be in love, at that moment, and to craft the words that reflect your feelings without the interfering filters of maudlin, of precision, of preciousness, of reserve.

I found this stationary today in a forgotten drawer. It’s not a tiny notebook, but it might as well be – it’s a blank page full of promise, a love letter waiting to be written, the unfilled ledger of my heart. I am traveling this week, and have determined to resume my custom of writing from hotels. This time, I’ll bring my own stamp.

Notes From the Waste Stream #9: Still Life

A few months ago I spent some time with a baby. It got me thinking about a painting in my house. The baby is a six week old lump, eyes dilated, warm and deboned, whose major skills seemed to be sleeping, eating and pooping. Roughly in that order. After noting her smell (powdery), her manner (snuggly) and her affect (oblivious), I started thinking: What will she remember of her life? What will her parents be to her? What will she do with all the stuff her parents own? I know that most people do not have such morbid thoughts when holding a baby.

The Painting

Sometimes I write about our relationships with the things we own. This means that many, many people have suggested that I read Marie Kondo. In case you haven’t, you’re supposed to get rid of things that do not “spark joy.” My inner economist likes that her approach deals with loss aversion (we are more attached to what we have lost than what we do not yet have – see also: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) by shifting presumption towards disposal. But I’m not storing my socks vertically. Or speaking to my shirts. And although, like Kondo, I’m an all-in declutterer (one room at a time, no wandering off to leave the task half-done), the fundamental animism of her method doesn’t speak to me. I am extremely averse to overt branding. I relate to the “brand allergies” of Kayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. But I will not cover up the labels of my detergent bottles so they do not “shout at me.” This seems a bit much; surely I can just look away?

I think that I have much in common with Kondo. Things, in general, seem to torment her. They must make their case or be banished. For me, no matter the cause of my sadness, I can feel better if I banish some stuff. I like an empty countertop. Some days I feel impossibly burdened by stuff. It’s not that I want to pick up and leave, but that it would be super hard if I wanted to. A military childhood imposes such discipline. Growing up, it was understood that everything we acquired needed to be moved every few years, so we weren’t to do much in the way of accumulating. Somebody would need to lift that box; somebody would have to pay for it to be shipped. The portability imperative seeps into you, influences every decision you make long into adulthood. Or else you refuse it altogether and decide that you will dig in absent outside orders, as my mother did in her later years.

These are first world problems. Kondo’s getting rich on a middle-brow version of affluenza. It’s a sweet spot: exporting the Japanese minimalist aesthetic to a society that takes comfort in its accumulation by watching Hoarders. “It could be so much worse,” we say as we buy something else from Amazon Prime.

IMG_2248Perhaps you have a house. Perhaps you read the glossy magazines, the tip-filled websites that armies of style mavens and merchandise wizards propagate, ostensibly, to help you achieve the kind of beauty and grace that will make people compliment you on your taste. Are you someone who needs to be complimented on your taste? If you are, in the immortal words of Flava Flav, “I can’t do nothing for you, man.” If not, you probably still have a dim understanding of the ecosystem’s map. You may not have “taste,” but you have “a” taste. Or perhaps, at the most basic level, you have graduated beyond Blu Tack to the adult practice of hanging things that are in frames or on canvas. Like all of life’s pursuits, the business of decoration has levels of obsession. How you assign worth (social worth, not monetary value, in case you’re the sort of person who gets those confused) to these levels may depend on the number of times you’ve read Hal Foster’s masterwork Ornament and Crime.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you’re decorating. Unless you are a psychopath, or incarcerated in an especially restrictive institution, you probably have things hanging on your walls. Some of these may be pieces you love. Perhaps they speak to you and bring you happiness. Some may be art that you just like –  they don’t “spark joy,” but just look good in a particular place, or are the proper size. And then there’s art that you hate. Or, at least it’s not to your taste. I have a painting like this. And yet it is hanging in my house.

The reason why begins with our shared human experience, whose CliffsNotes read something like this: You’re born. Your father’s hands seem impossibly huge. Your mother loves you to distraction. You learn right from wrong, good from bad, tasty from not. You navigate furniture you learn to treasure, hewing to norms you internalize but may later reject. You may dye your hair. Or get a tattoo. You’ll come to terms with your family, or you won’t. In any case, the odds are that you’ll bury them. This means they won’t have to die alone. For you, there are no similar guarantees.

When their story is over, you may end up staring at a painting you don’t like.

It is not an ugly painting. I have lived with ugly paintings before – you learn to glide your vision right past them, the way Linus says he bleeps over the Russian names when reading Dostoyevsky. There are paintings that I love but would never hang in my house, ranging from the kind of “art” generally sold around Jackson Square in New Orleans (though I have an amazing painting from there, a beloved gift from my husband) to the kitsch people buy to remember Key West. Then there’s the expensive stuff. Lucien Freud: too disturbing to contemplate over morning coffee. I love Damien Hirst but would prefer that my home not contain preserved animal corpses. A mummified bird once lingered in the sad corner of my dead mother’s basement. I paid someone to remove it to an inglorious afterlife.

This painting sits squarely at a puzzling intersection of values: high sentiment and low currency. It is a simple still life of casually arranged white flowers in a clear vase on a white tablecloth. They light up a dark background. The frame is gilded to a point that approaches ostentation. It is signed by the artist, Juan Ignacio Sardi. A small gold plaque along the frame’s bottom edge helpfully displays his name. The untitled work is surprisingly large. It hung in the dining room in all of our homes. The leaky propane-heated wreck “on the economy” (as they say in the military) in Spain where we adopted a stray cat imaginatively named Gato. The featureless house on base in Rota. The giant, sprawling coal-heated mansion in a tiny English village. The Lubbock ranch home. Albuquerque’s in-between rentals. The yellow brick house where my mother died on the couch while folding laundry.

It does seem like the kind of picture you would hang in a dining room – peaceful, even a bit atmospheric, grand but not pretentious, monochromatic but a bit romantic. In short, art that doesn’t take away from a room. In the right context. Right now it hangs in our guest room, the golden frame clashing queasily with our unfortunately mustard-colored walls. There was already a nail in place, and I worried about the way our cats might decide to interface with things made of canvas (violently, if our couches are any indication), so there it sits. I don’t go into the guest room very often, so I don’t have to look at it. If nobody looks at art, is it still art?

In Kondo-speak, I’m not quite ready to “thank it for its service.” Mostly because I’m still trying to figure out the nature of its service. While your parents are living, it’s awfully hard to learn to know them as actual humans with hopes and dreams. Oddly, one of the best things I’ve ever seen about this is a profane cartoon involving Burt Reynolds.

Once your parents are gone, your last chance to know them is through the things they left behind. I’ve been sorting through their things for years. But it wasn’t until I thought about selling the painting that I realized I’d never considered what it meant. It has always been so fully in the background – the way a parent can be if you’re not conscious or careful.

I stare at the still life. I do not understand it. What is there to understand? Table, vase, flowers, cloth. I think of the chaos it has overseen – just three years ago, a wake complete with lobster salad and cheesecake, the time we stuffed everything into the garage to make the home seem serene, driving the chihuahua to Colorado, the cat to the vet. Their deaths. The day before closing when the hot water heater leaked, the awkward holiday meals. She would have been able to see the painting from where she died on the couch, just around the corner against some florid, dated wallpaper. Did it give her comfort? Was it background that it escaped notice? What was its service to her?

IMG_2249Standing in the guest room, I notice for the first time that the flowers have already begun to shed a few leaves. How have I not seen this before? Both the not-noticing and the wilting seem bittersweet. The painting exists outside of time – flowers always about to wilt, tablecloth ever a little rumpled. It’s also deeply embedded in time and context. How will I know if it’s sparking joy? What is its service to me? Then I realize that I’m asking the wrong questions altogether. Kondo’s gotten in my head.

And then I get it. Marie Kondo doesn’t understand what objects are for. Or, more to the point, she has a fairly specific and crassly utilitarian understanding of what objects are for. They exist to serve us. Once they do not make us happy, they are released into the waste stream to serve someone else. So much of Kondo’s appeal is anchored in the valorization of the liberal humanist self, fully empowered to choose and deserving of all the service objects can provide. It’s such an appealing understanding of the world, just a little removed from the “dominion” philosophy used to justify activities like murdering and eating other animals. We want to believe that objects exist to serve us; even that art, somehow, exists to serve us. And that we should be filled with joy all the time. I get why this is popular. The alternative is pretty bleak – a de-centered self, a self shot through and constructed by the vagaries of time and chance. So instead we believe in “The Secret,” or the prosperity gospel, or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Or we decorate.

The House

Montgomery, Alabama is a tough place to live. We moved here eight years ago and saw it as a big adventure: Strange new city! Lots to explore! Over the years, our gee-whiz optimism diffused gradually. First there was: “there must be more than this,” then “hey, stop talking bad about our city” wagon-circling, then “let’s rattle this cage and make it better,” to “let’s talk about something else for a little while.” The background radiation of persistent racism is palpable in Montgomery, where there’s little in the way of live music and vegetarian food. As for public transportation, we’re famous for our buses, but not because of their efficiency. But we were determined to make it work.

A crucial part of our big Montgomery adventure was the thrill of owning our first home. Not just any home – the kind of home you dream about, with built-ins, transom, high ceilings and all of the molding and baseboards one could possibly want (turns out these are super hard to keep clean – who knew?). Over the years, we’ve thrown ourselves into many home repairs and been thrown into many others. Someone once told me that when the world outside seems tough, you’ve got to garden your own corner of the universe. So I’ve gardened every inch of this house. Some of this has involved decoration.

And then death made me sad. More specifically, I was seized with grief. I’ve learned many things about grief in the last three years, but here’s one people don’t talk much about. You can’t decorate your way out of out of it. This knowledge reveals itself in stages:

  1. What am I supposed to do with all this crap? This is the part when you drive a truck across the country and dump its contents into your front room. You despair over the pile, secretly wishing that it will vanish.
  2. I am totally going to deal with all this crap. Here, you shift into hyper-organized mode. Who can wear these plaid shirts? Shred the taxes. Stash the photos.
  3. Hey, some of this crap is really nice. You remember that you love your mother’s china pattern, even though she worried that it might be “too masculine” for you. Keep a flower vase, a few meaningful trinkets from overseas adventures. They make you smile.
  4. I can’t bring myself to get rid of this crap. It gets hard. You start slipping. Soon you hide a painting you don’t understand in a room you never visit.

Grief cauterizes the ends of more feelings than you’d care to acknowledge. Songs that used to make you sad, if you really listened, just glide through your brain now. What hard-hearted person can listen to Missing by Everything But The Girl and not get at least a little misty? You, it turns out. Meanwhile your brain’s mad librarian begins to shelve memories erratically. It pushes some to the back while others hang in front of your eyes for days. A story told hours ago seems sepia toned while a 2010 car trip feels fresh. As time whispers its contrails into the unknown future, key events become less liminal. Someday you are surprised to remember that your first boyfriend is dead. Or that there was a time when you read all of Love in the Time of Cholera out loud. Or that it’s been nearly 20 years since your father blindly choked his last in an Albuquerque hospital bed, so you can’t now ask him what to do with his military duffel bag or ancient Soviet history books. You discover that there is at least one more stage:

  1. I hate this but can’t explain why. This persistent painting, this enigma, this flat representation – how did it survive when everything else disintegrated? You hate it for its survival. You realize that this is entirely irrational.

Memory is a close cousin to grief. They share some traits. Neither prizes veracity or cares about opportunity costs. You can remember something to the letter, feel it despicable, and still not regret it. Grief drags you along, makes you look even if you don’t wish to. Memory makes wishing immaterial. Memory is the major and triumphalist key that grief doesn’t answer so much as amplify beyond your set frequencies.

Memory and grief also share a common and contested territory: time. My still life, for all of its efforts, cannot exist outside of time. This is both an ontological condition and an ethical imperative. As T.S. Eliot says, “If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable.” Redemption requires assigned value. In turn, that requires a reckoning. As you leaf through through things, sorting them for various destinations along a foreign trail divorced from both grief and memory, you will feel lost. You will want to hold on to as much as you can. You will want to get rid of everything. The painting reminds you that neither option is possible or desirable.

The flowers offer no answers. Their stillness reminds me we cannot stop time. Why, then, search for joy? Shouldn’t we let it find us? And why demand service from objects? Would we not be better to release ourselves from this sickening dependency? The truth about our belongings is much more difficult than dreamt of in Kondo’s philosophy. They’re not devices to deliver joy. Our things are the breadcrumbs we deploy so we don’t get lost in time. If they have something to do with joy, it’s only because we load them with our baggage and the things expected of us. The idea that we can discern “our” joy from the joy manufactured and force-fed us by the culture purveyors would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

I make my peace with the painting. Sometimes it’s okay to keep things that make you sad, or that you don’t understand. You can surround yourself with joy and not feel a bit of it. Every inch of your home can be servile and you can still want for more. Again, Eliot helps us to understand the predicament:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

When it’s time, I’ll give the painting to the baby. Perhaps she will have grand dinner parties under it, or contemplate it with tea in a quiet moment. Until then, I’ll hold on to it as a reminder that sometimes leaves fall without notice, without joy, and this can be beautiful.

Notes From the Waste Stream #8: Piggly Wiggly Head

I swear that I did not make this up. I know at least one other person who will believe me when I said that there used to be kind-of-creepy poetry about Mr. Pig, the Piggly Wiggly mascot, on the corporate website. I know this because we read them out loud together and I wept with the hilarity. I went looking for the poems because I wanted to explain how I came to own two plastic replicas of Mr. Pig’s head.

One is broken, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. It means so much to me. It’s not strange that we get attached to objects. Sometimes inertia keeps things around – that rug’s just always been there, surely there’s some life left in that old candle, etc. Objects are symbolic, too – a vase represents your mother, because it belonged to her, even if you never saw her use it. These pig heads are meant to be banks. Literally. They have a coin slot where the brains go in and a lever on the bottom to get your savings. I’ve never put any money in them. Instead, I’ve deposited memories, and I never really thought about this until I needed a withdrawal.

Consider the pig

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Sharpie is for scale

There is probably a Japanese word for when things are made to look so cute that they end up looking creepy. If that word exists, Mr. Pig fits the bill. His head is cocked to one side in a gesture that seems equal parts “Hey Girl,” and “I’m watching you slowly die because I poisoned you just now.” His eyes, as large as his cheeks, do not convey emotion so much as the horror of nothingness. The eyebrows say that he’s surprised to see you, or perhaps that you should be surprised (or terrified) to see him. And don’t get me started on his little hat.

When I received this pig in the mail, I was in a dark place. We all get into dark places sometimes; this was the kind that was more about what was going on around me than what was in my head. I was in love with someone far away in Alabama, and I was trying to figure out how to get there, to be with him.

Perhaps to keep me company, perhaps because he knew it would make me smile, perhaps because it was just hilarious that a Mr. Pig bank existed and you could purchase one as a gift. For whatever reason, he bought it for me. And then, for some reason, I got a second one. To this day, he swears that he did not order the second one. I’m not sure I believe him. He’s cagey like that.

In our nine years in Montgomery, the pig heads have sat on bookcases, barely noticed despite their evident incongruity (Who shelves Mr. Pig next to Sartre? Me, evidently.). Today, I picked one up and brought it to my desk to study. I wanted to see it. Not as scenery, as decoration, as prop for a certain version of my life to play out, but as a thing in itself. Which is totally foolish, because there’s no way to think about a thing in itself, Kant be damned. The act of reading something always already and actively creates a context. No things exist outside their consideration, by definition, because the naming of things requires (at least) interaction. Which is to say that there is nothing outside of the text.

By extension, that there is no outside Mr. Pig. This plastic head, sitting here on my desk with his silent and likely homicidal intentions, cannot exist without my interpretation of him. And you, reader, are doomed to the same role, now that I’ve put his image into your eyeballs.

Mr. Pig, though he’s never had a coin inside him, contains multitudes. And my Mr. Pig is different from yours, which is pretty much both the definition of interpretation and the decisive refutation of most Enlightenment philosophy.  To make things more complicated, my Mr. Pig has changed over time, as objects are wont to do. What he meant to me that sunny Southern California day, collapsing in hilarious delight on the porch when I opened my mail, is different from what he means to me now.

memory and its discontents

I’ve been in a dark place. A different kind of dark place – the kind your brain makes without your consent or awareness. The kind of place I’ve seen other people’s brains make, but one I thought mine would never do. When you’re the kind of person who Gets Things Done, who impresses others, you never think of your mind as something that might play tricks on you. If you let this go on for too long, you’ll start to wonder if there’s even a you there any longer to trick. It will feel like staring into a series of mirrors. You may or may not have put Mr. Pig opposite his broken doppelganger to simulate what this is like.

img_2780The other Mr. Pig can’t contain anything. The part of him designed to make sure what’s been put into him stays there is entirely severed. You can make it seem that he’s not broken with careful positioning, but the reality is that (absent serious glue, something I know way too much about) he’s a sieve. If memories were tangible, they’d slip right through this Mr. Pig.

What happens to us when we lose our memories? I’m not talking about dementia or its cousins. I’ve seen that up close, and it’s terrifying. I’m also not talking about the kind of everyday forgetting. Our brains are quite reasonably not wired to keep every experience in close reach. Stay with me. Remember that I said that Mr. Pig can’t exist outside of his context. Now think about whether it is possible for you to exist without your memories. And think about what a memory is. For example: I received a plastic pig head in the mail. My memory of that is not just a snapshot; it’s not just nostalgia. It’s also, if I let it unfold properly, a remembrance of possibility, of love, of the permeability of distance and time, of the way that contexts shape odd objects and infect them with unexpected meaning. We disparage memory when we see it simply as about the past. Memories make us who we are. More than that, they make the reality that we live. Just as Mr. Pig’s context allows me to understand him, so too does our context make it possible for us to understand ourselves.

Nobody but me (well, and one other person) would ever look at these heads on my shelves and deduce what they represented, how they bookmarked a particular chapter in an amazing and ongoing love story. To the outside, they are curiosities. On the inside, they are totemic, no matter how broken and accidental. Memory is both essential and dangerous. There is no outside-memory. We need memories to exist, almost by definition. But if you go too far in that direction, memory becomes an alluring quicksand that most of us are ill-equipped to resist. We call this nostalgia. It is a very particular and pernicious sickness. In the last several years, particularly in the last, I tried to navigate these poles and got lost.

The crazy eyes of Mr. Pig stare into my soul from his new place on my desk. As someone new to professional mental health care, I wonder if maybe I also have crazy eyes. At least mine don’t look like that. At least my eyebrows stay put. At least I don’t wear a stupid little hat.

Kids Korner

I have been trying to get out of my dark place. It is going to take some time. I have put the unbroken Mr. Pig on my desk as a symbol of what is possible. Which, itself, might be a symptom of mental illness. We hear a lot about the idea of seeing things with “new eyes.” This seems like bullshit to me, the kind of American exceptionalist thing that always drives me crazy. Trouble brewing? Clear the slate! We peddle mindfulness like it’s a decade ahead of your high school nickel bag served up in a Joan Jett tape case clandestinely passed in the hallway, like it will cure what ails you, if you can only take charge of your circumstances. Essential oils? Electrolytes? Probiotics? We can get that for you in a pyramid scheme for a reasonable price.

Here’s what we don’t do. We don’t talk much about what it’s like to be the person who actually can’t take control, much less the person who consumes so much of the literature that she becomes someone she’s not while using the language and cover of control. And also: Why would we ever want to see anything or anyone with new eyes? We value patina in the world of antiques; why do we not similarly value it in humans?

Nothing is ever new. Which is weird, because we are living in a culture that fetishizes the “new.” It forgives us our lack of attention to our memory bank, our spread-out focus, our presentism. And then, bless his heart, there’s Mr. Pig. Here I do not mean “bless his heart” in the profane sense often meant in the South (for newbies, that’s basically “Go %&*# yourself.”). He’s a stalwart receptacle, and we can judge his clone all we want, but he wasn’t designed to be so leaky. That doesn’t make him disposable.

Here’s what I want to say about Mr. Pig. When I touch him, if I’m intentional about it, I can feel the love of the person who sent him to me. Before any of this, before I slipped into this dark place. And it feels, weirdly, like a way out. You stare into those insane eyes, and you remember the person who knew that this would be understood as a token of love to send such a thing (maybe two) to you, and you feel like there is, at long last, a place between forgetting and nostalgia for you. Plural. As in y’all, one of the South’s most important and useful linguistic inventions.

I search the Piggly Wiggly site in vain for the poetry. They’ve replaced it with a “Kids Korner” replete with disturbing images for coloring. You can’t buy the banks any longer, but there is a range of hoodies, should you choose to rep Piggly Wiggly’s 100th anniversary in public.

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Does it not seem like he is chasing these children? Is it just me?

Intellectuals talk a lot about de-centering the self. The first move is harder in theory than in practice. The second move, if you can make it this far, is to question the divide between theory and practice. This is the really difficult part. It requires you, actually, to think deeply about what it means to be “you.” It makes you recognize the love you’ve stashed around the house in carefully chosen artifacts. It makes you feel like you can get out of your dark place.

Ave Maria Grotto

Prologue: Exit 308

We’d taken the Cullman exit off of the 65 many times, always for a singular purpose: to consume an artisanal work prepared by members of a religious sect. Pickles. More specifically, the spicy garlic Amish pickles sold at Smith Farms (also sold at the creepy Pioneer Village on the way to Troy).

This time, to celebrate our nation’s independence, we decided to consume a different kind of religious craftsmanship: the Ave Maria Grotto. If you’ve never heard of the Grotto, you’ve probably never browsed many state tourism brochures. Sure, it’s not a site that our PR experts market as heavily as, say, the Rosa Parks museum. And it’s not a privately owned advertising juggernaut like De Soto Caverns. But still, it’s something unique to our state that has always struck us as not to be missed. We have a bit of an Alabama “bucket list,” you see – things we’ve agreed that we’d see or do together before one or both of us left the state.

If our skin was a different color, not too long ago we’d have been made to leave Cullman before the sun went down. In any case, we left long before dusk. On arrival, it was clear that despite the optimistic two-day itinerary suggested by the folks at the Grotto, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in downtown Cullman. Maybe because it was a Sunday? Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend? To get some pre-Grotto energy, we ate at a place called “All Steak.” Sure, they didn’t serve only steak. And probably they didn’t serve all of the steak (though we didn’t see anyone try to push them in this direction). But other things distinguish the spot. Mostly, the sheer volume of extra food we did not order that came with our meal. It started with cornbread and rolls. We take a bread course for granted, like chips and salsa at a “Mexican” restaurant. But it’s still, technically, food that you do not order.

What happened next was entirely outside of our range of shared experience. Our waiter, who had to be reminded by a peer that he was legally prohibited from serving us beer on Sundays in Cullman, deposited plates in front of each of us that contained a substance so foreign to us that our facial expressions must have conveyed a particularly unusual horrified bemusement – the kind you might expect to emote when confronted by, say, a lizard dressed as Bette Midler or a Groupon for a deeply discounted jalapeno-flavored lubricant.

“What is this?” We asked.
Congealed salad,” he replied. Perhaps seeing that this answer was unsatisfactory, or at least incomplete, he explained that this was given to every guest, free of charge. We nodded an uncertain assent.

Your first kiss; the death of a parent; being lost in a foreign country. These are things that are nearly impossible to describe. We could plausibly add our congealed salad to this list of rarities. It was sort of pinkish-orange. It was vaguely square. Of its own volition, it appeared to liquify over a relatively short amount of time. It may have contained some kind of ground nuts and fruit. When poked, it retained coherence. We politely took a few bites. It was citrus by way of carpet freshener.

At the end of the meal, we were delivered slices of pie and two of the restaurant’s “famous orange rolls.” A total of seven different extra and unordered food items. We marveled at the economy that allowed the All-Steak to lavish so many complimentary calories on its guests. We enjoyed our veggie plates and left an extra large tip.

Brother Zoetti

IMG_2547Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there was a time when the Catholic Church had a monopoly on Christianity. Sure, they had some hard times with multiple feuding popes and what not, but they were basically the only game in town until they overreached and Martin Luther showed up to make with the schism already. Schism after schism has left us with a rich array of Protestantisms, from the basically-Catholic C of E/Episcopalian variants to the God’s mouth-to-my-ear DIY experiments of the Pentacostals and, yes, the Baptists. Of course, all manner of rituals and beliefs separate these, but one is mediation. Who, if anyone, gets to mediate your relationship with the sacred? With the profane? With society? Are you a free agent, constrained, or somewhere in between?

Modernity doesn’t concern itself particularly with these questions, although they define every part of our experience from the mundane (“Do you want fries with that?”) to the profound (“Can I make the world better?”). In the American South, the question of mediation is especially poignant. When people talk about the particularly prickly attitudes of Southerners, what’s really under the glass is this people’s relative lack of mediation, the way their resistance stems from the sense that their hands are, if not directly on the levers of power, at least proximate enough to compel movement as they wish. Alienation happens when this power feels stripped away (see also: Trump), even if it never really existed in the first place.

Luther’s aftershocks still reverberate in the Deep South. Here, people still resist the idea of mediation. Why should any person, let alone any institution, stand between themselves and their God, much less their community? And others exploit that, as they can, for power and money (as far as those are separable), and other pleasures even more perverse. They want to watch Southerners in their designated holding area, pacing their oddly shaped cages, engaging in practices that others find alien and frightening – in short, a particular version of Orientalism. Some come to watch and wonder, to buy the goods on offer, to tell their friends back home that they survived a kind of Freedom Ride. Others want to see the oddities. They make Butch Anthony possible; they take friends from NYU and Columbia to see the Cross Garden and its promises of hellfire. In this way, enduring brunch stories are secured and passed forward for generations (or at least another round of mimosas).

The monastic experience is particularly far from most of us, North or South. We think of monks and nuns as hangovers from the distant past, their decision for a cloistered life as something ancient and constrained. Or else we valorize it, this idea of people who are so much better than us that they choose beer, or preserves, or prayer, or anything at all, really, except for the pleasures of the flesh that consume us. We forget that once monasteries existed essentially to serve two purposes. First, to get rid of inconvenient non-heir male children; and second, to create prayer buffer zones so that the rest of us might be able to have a resort or two before we went to hell. During the Crusades, wealthy families could have a kind of draft deferment by donating to cloisters in lieu of marching to Jerusalem, or Constantinople, or even the south of France.

And the nunneries? Arguably, a convent was your best bet if born a woman for much of the last 2,000 years. At least you’d probably not be raped; at least they’d probably teach you to read; at least you’d not die in childbirth. Convents have died off in recent memory. Literally. Fewer women want to marry Jesus, as they’ve just got the option to be not married at all (much less the option not to bear children). Meanwhile, nuns have become somewhat notorious for being politically active.

Here in Cullman (or, more precisely, Hanceville), the nuns are also known for political activism – just in their own way. While cloisters in California and Great Britain have chained themselves to fences arguing against nuclear weapons and climate change, Alabama’s nuns have taken a slightly different focus. They became globally notorious for the especially venomous opinions of one Mother Angelica, whose sisters assembled the Church’s most obvious and suspect tenets into a global media tapestry that resisted picking and re-weaving past her recent death. We did not visit the convent.

Instead we entered through the gift shop at St. Bernard Abbey. This is a Benedictine Order monastery, and if you’re confused about what that means, consider that the previous pope was keen enough on their core ideas to take their patron saint for his pope-name. Tickets for the grotto were $7 each. We were advised by the cashier to “enjoy our walk.”

Some background is in order here. Once upon a time, the French settled what became Louisiana. They built North America’s first cathedral in Mobile. They even had to import wives. Some immigrants came. They were Catholic. They had spiritual needs. In the 1890s, the Benedictines sent some folks to make a new monastery in what would become Cullman. The larger mission to convert the heathens and give succor, etc., was well under way.

And then something strange happened. In the early part of the new century, a brother joined the monastery from Europe by way of a few places elsewhere in the so-called “New World.” Brother Joseph Zoetti had been moved around, an immigrant with little English, to eventually take control of the electrical facilities at the Cullman monastery. What did he think of this strange place where the summers suffocated and incomprehensible insects took root in your small parts at odd hours? Did the other monks make fun of him for not speaking the language well? Was he already a touch afflicted with the need to see beyond liturgy, to the more demanding and tactile components of lived religion? Had he grappled with the limits of doctrine? Had he seen these limits as opportunities to be glazed and sparkled? Was he simply enamored of concrete and its ability to be shaped into anything God might command?

There is a movie about this in the gift shop. It cost $20. Because this was beyond our price point, we may never know. There are some clips from the film online. In one of them, beloved Alabama historian Wayne Flynt talks eloquently about how God does not see time; about how Joseph’s efforts transcended time and space in ways that followed a divine, rather than human, sense of the possible. We’d not seen this clip before we took the tour, but we’d seen a few others and had come to expect a set of eloquently crafted miniatures – faith embodied in the reflection of the human world, set meditatively among the trees and stones. We readied ourselves for the transcendent and stepped into the Alabama summer.

The Grotto

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It is important to be honest about what you will see on the path. Do not expect, as we did, shockingly ornate craftsmanship. Or do, but don’t expect that it will conform to your particular ideas of “ornate” or “craftsmanship.” Do not expect to be transported to Rome, to Jerusalem, to Spain. Do expect to marvel. Do not be disappointed when this marveling takes you in unexpected directions. Remember, as you struggle, that to be human is to desire. Recall, if you can, the Buddha’s great insight that desire is suffering. We struggle against want, but in the end it pulls all but a few of us down, again and again, until we stay on the wheel forever or else push past it and therefore past the constraints of mortality. The ancient Zen stories make no sense. They are not meant to, at least not in the way that we conventionally understand meaning. But we are built to seek meaning, which makes encountering something like the Grotto especially hard.

An admission: We desired the Grotto in a particular way. Which is to say that we understood its meaning in a particular way. What is meaning if not the creation and reflection of desire? We entered with the subject position of art consumer; of tourists accustomed to navigating the irreducible distance between viewer and viewed. We wanted it, even if we didn’t admit as much to ourselves, to take our breath away. We wanted to be transported. We wanted to feel like Alabama was better than they say, better than we sometimes think in our low moments. We wanted the claims to be true, that there was this magnificent jewel in Northern Alabama, that believing required seeing.

The path leads you through a “self guided tour.” The path goes one way, although of course it is always possible to backtrack. Nobody does. There is a moral here if you look hard enough. It is lost on the bored children pretending to appreciate frayed and weather-worn models from another age. There is a brochure, which mostly repeats the content of the small plaques that accompany the exhibits. Mostly the plaques supercede the brochure. Mostly you wish to possess neither the plaque nor the brochure. Information can destroy beauty in an especially faithless manner foretold by a hundred erased Catholic mystic martyrs. The Grotto provides no exception to this rule.

But first. But first you begin at Bethlehem, a cage built around a conventional manger scene. You peer through the bars. You notice that the letters above have been decorated with colored glass. This is a taste of what is to come.

IMG_2516After the much-attended birth of Jesus, the exhibits begin in earnest. They are placed up and down a winding path, some set aside on their own, others clustered together. They are not arranged chronologically in terms of human time or time of construction (fitting, as these things have little to do with divine time). It turns out that the exhibits have been moved – that this is not their original location, that they may not have always been surrounded by manicured gardens and staffed by people who remove fallen pinecones and stray leaves.

The miniatures come in two kinds. The first kind aspires to representation, to verisimilitude. You may never see St. Peter’s or the Coliseum, but you can see them here – a kind of artifice that feels ancient enough to pre-date not just photography but the printing press. When you consider that the other people on the path may never themselves see these wonders in person, but may think they have via the magic of the Internet, you may feel a unique brand of sadness. You consider the plaster, the concrete, the fragile construction of the cheap-looking models, and they make you sad. Not because of any intrinsic inadequacies, but because of the failures of representation itself, the tragedy of desire and its failed collision with the human experience. You admire the water features. You pause to see if a frog is real or a statue.

To understand the Grotto, you’ve got to interrogate your idea of what it means to be “real.” Representation is the most baseline manifestation of the idea of the real, and there’s no question but that all of the miniatures represent something. Some have “real life” correspondents. Others seem to draw purely from Brother Zoetti’s head. There is the fictional Crucifixion Tower. There are the Hanging Gardens. Then there are the Biblical images – the Ark, for example, an especially poignant and lovable display in light of Kentucky’s new multi-million dollar boondoggle.

Yes, yes, but what are they like? How can we be 2600 words into this blog post and not know yet what the sculptures are like? Reader, you should know that they are not nearly as magnificent as you may have been led to believe. Full stop. There is no point in pulling punches on this matter. As you wander on the path, you get the feeling that Brother Joseph was the kind of person who scavenged broken shards of plates out of the trash; who hoarded bags of marbles; who begged pieces of tile from construction sites. How you react to this will define, in a very fundamental way, who you are.

Consider that the sculptures themselves are not exactly high art. Which is to say, more precisely, that they are mostly composed of concrete globs with various bits attached. Depending on the artist’s stated goal, some of these attachments represent the familiar (e.g., The Leaning Tower of Pisa). Others are more abstract (e.g. The Temple of the Fairies). While all tend to include some element of sparkle, there is a sense among the more imaginative works that the artist felt free to merge a set of sea shells, a few globs of cement and a set of marbles together for effect. Overall, many of the works contain less artistic innovation than grade school enthusiasm.

It hurts your heart to say it this way, but really, there is a sense where the rows of shells, with concrete, with embedded marbles feel more manic than inspired, and more sad than depressive, and in any case less impressive than you’d thought, so it’s best to move along. They are displayed individually, or else in groups (even though the grouping is suspect along lines of time and place, as Flynt points out). Sometimes they are crammed up on a hill, with manicured gardens between. Other times, you’re left to consider their meaning alone. There are no individual pieces that induce a “wow” reaction. This is important to know, if you decide to go. The propaganda materials for the site make it seem like you will be absolutely blown away. You will. Just not in the way you thought you’d be.

Art and religion have much in common. In the first place, they are relational. For beauty to exist, there must be something beautiful. Belief cannot be described without something in which faith is instilled. Our paths, all “self-guided,” diverge as we age. Some of us calcify and describe this as commitment. Some of us haven’t thought that much about it. Some of us reach wildly about as death feels more near, as beauty feels far away and faith ever further. Still others are called, evidently, to glue things to other things in an attempt to reconcile the dark distances between love, highest purpose and creed.

There is a way to tell the history of the church that is a story of struggle against the strange and unknowable. The core texts are declared and collected, the others shunned or called things like “apocryphae.” Persistent oddities are brought in and made dicta – God is three but also one; bread is body; wine is blood but also not wine at all but something considerably less heady. Pieces of saints – robes, bones, hands – are preserved for worship and wonder across the world. Our own stories aren’t so different. We push away what doesn’t fit into our theories of the world, or else we seek to contain and categorize the inconvenient and wild, the odd and disturbing. We organize ourselves against death, we imbue the objects around us with meanings that are often inscrutable to others. Whether we believe or not, we still feel doctrine’s push and pull. Slowly, it will bring pieces of us out to sea no matter how we twist and turn.

If you leave the Grotto trying to understand why Brother Zoetti made these objects, you are doing it wrong. If you leave without curiosity, or feeling like you’ve wasted $7, you are also doing it wrong. There is no right approach along the path; there are only shells, and glass shards, and broken plates, and marbles, and elaborate hillsides where the probable nestles next to the improbable.

Epilogue: The Gift Shop

Afterward, your body sweltering from the heat, your mind spinning from the uncomfortable juxtaposition of mysticism and the concrete (also the actual concrete), you have the opportunity to purchase many God-themed items. These include an improbably large variety of Catholic tchotchkes: crucifixes, anglo-Jesus portraits, spreadable monastic preserves, golf balls, childrens’ books, rosaries, license plate covers declaring that GOD is your CO-PILOT, and – oddly – sports cards. Which are “pay as you wish” to benefit mission trips. If this does not strike you as incongruous, having stared too long at “HANSEL AND GRETEL VISIT THE CASTLE OF THE FAIRIES,” you have no soul.

Notes from the Waste Stream #7: Giant Metal Hippo

This is the story of how I came to carry a 8.2 pound metal hippopotamus on board five flights from South Africa to Alabama. It is a story that begins, in a roundabout way, in North Africa, but I’ll get to that part last.

Istanbul

I learned to haggle in the winding passages of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I had been told all my life that it was extremely rude to haggle. But the Turkish travel guide I read on the airplane was quite clear on this point: it would be rude not to haggle. So I did what I normally do in uncomfortable situations and entirely overthought it. I memorized haggling tips and picked at the partially comprehensible Turkish-language keyboard of the lonely shared hotel computer into the prime hours of jet lag.

Few places on earth can prepare you for Istanbul’s old city. The layers of history pile on each other in ways much more haphazard, strange and lovely than any textbook can explain. The Hagia Sophia, where the Ottomans (sometimes more pragmatist than the usual narrative allows) decided to keep the church and just cover the blasphemous frescoes. Rebranding, they might call it now. Where actual Vikings carved something like “Erik was here” into the floor while passing through. The wasp-waisted towers of the Blue Mosque, where enterprising vendors will try to sell you special socks to wear inside, even though any socks will do. Unless they have holes. Check for holes. If you go into the basement of the souvenir shop next door, you might discover an actual Roman cistern where rich-smelling water drips slowly down rows of dozens columns each wider than your embrace. If you are rich, you can stay at the Four Seasons, located in a renovated Turkish prison. If you are not rich, you can at least go drink at their bar and read the English language newspapers (how I’ll miss the International Herald Tribune) before retreating to your more modest lodgings.

Istanbul is the first place I ever really heard the call to prayer. You don’t so much hear it as become suffused by it, the symphony of muezzins calling the faithful over loudspeakers both tinny and rich bouncing off old and new buildings, into corridors and breakfast nooks. I was there once during Ramadan, when every kind of food cart lines the streets just waiting for fast to break and lines to form – a joyful end to the day, when twinkly lights are strung between trees and poles.

Then there’s the Grand Bazaar. It’s almost Orientalist by definition to write about this place: The exotic array of goods! The seen-it-all merchants! The foreign scents and foods! I prefer on the whole to think of it as a mall long predating Victor Gruen’s great and terrible idea without the baggage of urbanisms old and new. It is, fundamentally, just a place to shop. More to the point, it is a place for foreigners to shop. It is a place where the shopping is both exactly and totally beside the point. Visitors are not just shopping for goods – they are shopping for a very particular experience of shopping for goods. The Grand Bazaar may still occupy its original warren of tunnels and side streets, but it’s clearly a performance of a specific version of itself conceived by and for others.

In this respect, it is sadly like Doha’s Souq Waqif, which is “fake” in the sense used by the late Umberto Eco. Doha is accelerating at a pace where the hyperreal is only an event horizon. In a place like this, there’s no point in seeking authenticity. But they’d like to sell it to you anyway. The Souq Waqif, as various promotional materials are happy to tell you, is in fact a centuries-old site for trading. They are less likely to mention that the site was abandoned, then burned down, and then reconstructed to look authentic so that this former village might claim a soul, or at least a history, as its armies of indentured laborers busily erect all manner of temples to commerce and excess. As Eco writes, “The industry of the Absolute Fake gives a semblance of truth to the myth of immortality through the play of imitations and copies.” Check.

Souk Waquif

Souk Waqif

You can buy good saffron here, the Iranian kind not allowed in the United States, for reasonable rates. If you do your research, you can even bring this home through customs. Also there are a surprisingly large number of vintage radios in gorgeous bakelite cases, so miraculously preserved from the elements that it seems possible to tune into broadcasts from World War I. And of course the Souq feels real, whatever that means. It feels as real as the chocolate fountain at the Intercontinental Hotel’s sumptuous dessert buffet. Trying to pin down its realness is entirely beside the point and, besides, may distract you from small children sticking their hands into the cascading sticky goo.

At the Grand Bazaar, I dickered over, walked away from and ultimately purchased a bracelet ostensibly made of silver and amber. If you like old things, as I do (records, radios, paper newspapers), then you’ll appreciate my interest in amber. In retrospect, it is clear that the seller did too – and despite my best efforts, I surely overpaid. Still, it was fun to negotiate, and I like the bracelet (though its silver content was, at best, wildly overstated). On another visit I made the mistake of displaying too much interest in a piece of fabric I thought I’d wear as a skirt. It’s now an overpriced table runner for those biennial occasions when I might need to dress my Ikea tables up to impress someone else.

I mention my time in Turkey because by the time I met the hippo I fancied myself a bit of a haggler. I’d even negotiated over white gold in Dubai with an impatient man who swatted away my tourist Arabic until a Lebanese friend who wasn’t about to give me any false compliments congratulated me on my score. Then I met my match.

Capetown

By the time I got to South Africa, I was well into my 30s. I considered myself very experienced in international travel. I was also supervising a group of high school students – something that for a time took me all over the world to enviable destinations where I would normally stay in the hotel at night failing to navigate the hotel’s useless Internet connection while hoping that the students didn’t roam the streets of Santiago, or Athens, or wherever, and get me sued.

Capetown is magnificent, but the trip had some hiccups. First, although the hotel we stayed at was called the Ritz, I am sure that it was not one of “those Ritzes” in the same way that the “Diplomat Inn” down the street from our house in one of Montgomery’s sketchiest neighborhoods is probably not where the actual diplomats stay. Second, it had never been explained that we would be given the opportunity to climb around on Table Mountain. This would have been fine, except that I ended up getting the privilege in a skirt. With the added weight of my personal computer, which I could not leave in the room because of a wave of thefts reported at the conference hotel. I would very much like to return to Capetown. I would not stay at this particular Ritz again.

Going up Table Mountain

Going up Table Mountain

When you take students to these unending debate competitions (ten days, if you can believe it, with two debates a day – you drink all the bad coffee just to stay conscious), there are precious few moments to enjoy the company of other adults and actually see the city. I treasure the afternoon I got to explore the Parthenon by myself, taking pictures of anarchist graffiti in the streets below and getting to know the many feral cats of Athens. In Capetown, an old friend and I seized the chance to escape for a few hours to a local market. The people at home need souvenirs, and I always want to buy one thing for myself to remember each adventure.

The market was set up in a square, densely layered rows of stalls selling all manner of crafts – tiny paintings, florid textiles, preposterous wooden utensils, every possible thing that could be made from metal bottlecaps. We turned a corner and I saw the hippo in a collection of animals and objects made of scrap metal. I’ll admit that I fell just a little in love. My first misstep.

Of course there is a backstory. Like many morbid children, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Some of my most formative early memories include seeing artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb at the National Gallery in the 1970s and then discovering a beautiful copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in my grandfather’s library. When we were children, our parents entertained us with the story of William, the Met’s famous hippo. I was primed to like the hippo.

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I loved his rusty and pointed exterior, his wide eyes, his comic nose, his heft, his rounded belly. I joked to my friend that he was so heavy I could probably use him as a deadly weapon. I picked him up. I was, in short, a mark. But I would never buy such a thing. I had a ton of luggage and an excruciating trip home. Still, just curious, I asked the sculptor for the price. Strike two.

To this day, I can’t remember the price he quoted me. And it gets fiddly in other countries, because no matter how good you are at doing exchange rate math in your head, in these moments the stuff begins to seem a bit like monopoly money (I still have an ATM receipt somewhere from the time I withdrew 10,000,000 in Turkish lira). I do remember that, to be polite, I offered him exactly half of the price. Which I thought would end the deal, because he would go higher and give me a chance to walk away. It did not. The students made fun of me.

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I wrapped this unwieldy thing in a sweatshirt and ran it through every metal detector and bomb swabbing apparatus from Capetown to Atlanta, via Johannesburg, Frankfurt and Heathrow. At every stop it was pulled aside for inspection, muttered over in cadences which I did not always understand but seemed to sum up to: “Can you believe this giant metal hippo?” He now sits by my fireplace. I named him Rand, after his birth currency and to remind me that money in other countries is actually real.

Morocco

I think I know why my parents forbade me from haggling. It has to do with a giant and ornate birdcage made of metal and wood that was a fixture in my many childhood homes. This is a birdcage that my mother populated with a stern-looking stuffed black vulture. She would often produce it at parties or use it as a prop to burst in and scare groups of children during sleepovers. Anyone who knew my mother will remark, unprovoked, on her unusual sense of humor. She once let a gaggle of pre-teens watch Psycho after midnight, allegedly unsupervised, bursting in at the crucial moment with a knife. I lost a lot of friends that evening.

She was a military wife. This included any number of activities: complicated dinner parties, herding children back and forth between continents to visit family, worrying about a deployed spouse, negotiating the commissary system. It also meant that sometimes she would go with other military wives on vacations organized to both enrich their lives and stop them from going quite mad. When we lived in England, she went to the Soviet Union and came back singing the praises of the Winter Palace while complaining about how difficult it was to acquire Coca-Cola there. I still have a stash of kopecks from this visit.

When we lived in Spain, she went with other wives to Morocco – a short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar. I know this because one night when I was old enough to split a bottle of wine with her I finally asked about the birdcage. Evidently she, too, had been raised not to haggle. One key difference: she had not done her homework on the matter. One key similarity: the homework did not, in the end, make much of a difference. Evidently she admired the birdcage in the market, picked it up, showed it to friends. Until her death she claimed that she did not make an offer. She did, as she pointed out, cling to every penny in those days (and long after).

The first part of the transaction is lost to time. The second is a matter of record. She and her friends turned and walked away. The proprietor, enraged at what he perceived as a broken deal, chased them through the market with the birdcage as they fled. She was in her early thirties at the time, with two young children at home, inconceivably far from the small town of her birth with no grasp of the local language or custom. I imagine her fear at that moment, the sharp thrill of being scared and lost in another country, the worry of coming home with something so extravagant. In the end, she paid the man. As I did, without the chase.

The birdcage is lost now, a bit of debris stripped of pedigree and set loose into the broader waste stream that absorbs death and the stories it splinters. The bird is also gone – a story for another day, attached to another and similarly painful loss. I can’t say I’ve learned my lesson.

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