I used to think that I couldn’t lose anyone if I photographed them enough.
– Nan Goldin
1. My sister heard about it first. She told me “it sounds like something you’d like.” Leanne Shapton’s second book, the 2009 Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, is modeled after an auction guide. The reader learns about Doolan and Morris, as individuals and as a couple, through their stuff. The only text in the slim 129 pages is in the descriptions of the items up for auction. The spine reads “Important Artifacts And…” This is, of course, because the title’s too long to fit. Perhaps it also implies that who the artifacts belong to are of little consequence and that the artifacts could be anything really. They could be yours. The tie you wore once to a funeral and then gave away. The pressed purple flower you never gave your mother.
2. Souvenirs are anchors to the past. And, the past can lead to a certain brand of sadness. Those who soak in the past tend toward depression. So large is my fear of forgetting that I lug around souvenirs, reminders of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. The problem is that with too much concern for the made thing, the glorified artifact, that spangled souvenir, we can’t see what’s happening right this minute, here.
3. I don’t collect shot glasses or spoons. I collect photographs. I take them and I hoard them. They’re my favorite souvenirs. I revisit them more than I should.
4. Most of my traveling is via work. As an English professor, I attend conferences along with fellow academics. For most of my career, I stayed within the confines of the conference hotels. It was a safe world for me, the introverted writer who would much rather imagine the world that waited outside panels of papers and tables of books and name tags hanging from twisted lanyards. The handshaking and the card swapping that happens there is familiar.
This stopped after a conference in St. Louis four years ago. A friend back home desperately tried to encourage me to see the arch. “It’s really something,” he said. I yanked my hotel curtains to the side like rowdy bangs. I could see its underbelly if I really tried. I told him this. He said, “I don’t know what you’re so scared of.”
5. In 2004, on my Honolulu honeymoon, I bought a charm with my new and impatient husband by my side. It was yellow gold and in the shape of a hibiscus. It was smaller than a penny. I wore it around my neck to remind me to be softer. That I was a wife. Wives are soft. They know how to compromise. I also wore it to remind me of squeezing past hazy mountains in a tour bus and taking a picture of my bride feet in flip flops next to my flip flopped husband’s. I was terrified of forgetting one sip of those first married days.
6. I met a film actor once. He was in a film that I owned on video. It was a planned meeting. We met at a fast food restaurant and no one else was there. He bought me bottled water. We talked about anything but his work. I didn’t want to seem too much like a fan. I didn’t want to be predictable. We talked about dating in your thirties, in your fifties, we talked about the sometimes loud sounds of protesting, about the rancid levels of nuts. I never asked for an autograph. I didn’t take a picture of him with my phone. I have no reminder, no souvenir that we ever met. It seemed too expected and too cheap. I didn’t want to be that person. I wasn’t that person.
7. I visited New Orleans for the first time last year. I forgot my phone in the hotel room the day I arrived. I didn’t have a way to document, to remember ferns spilling off every balcony, the priest in the sunlight near an alley, black suits walking to an Archbishop’s funeral, a blinking casino that looked lost, the coal burning off the ferry to Algiers. I had to rely on seeing and remembering and trusting that I would remember everything right.
8. Bright postcards swallow my refrigerator door. They’re slick in the way postcards are. They don’t necessarily mean I wish you were here. The one from Honolulu has one of the four statues of The Great King Kamehameha. His right arm is outstretched and brims with leis. Shadowed by kudzu, Savannah streets can’t compete. The Washington Memorial tries to be taller. Treasure Island at night doesn’t glitter enough. It’s the King I can’t escape when I get water, egg whites, salsa out of the refrigerator. It’s the way the sun is reflected on his forehead and his cheeks. It’s that he’s been remembered.
9. I donated the hibiscus charm to an object ethnography project. It’s been eight years since I chose the charm in that outdoor market with the vendors setting up around trees, growing up and out and into the shops. I remember all of it. I remember a woman in a chair reading palms there too. I remember wanting so badly to know what would happen to me.
Family and friends didn’t get it. They didn’t understand why a person would give a genuine gold charm away to a stranger. I didn’t want it anymore. But it’s real gold. I don’t need it anymore.
I remember without it.
10. After ending my last relationship, I realized that I lost a pair of my favorite earrings, black flowers, to my ex-boyfriend. Lost isn’t accurate. Left. I’m always leaving some thing behind when I leave some one. I never want my things back. I’d rather they stay on without me in a space where I once moved. I imagine they’re my ghost, lingering, nudging old lovers and boyfriends. For all I know, my earrings were gently thrown into the trash on top of an empty cereal box or maybe placed in a generic, embossed metallic box with a cotton pillow and given to the next person he kissed.
11. I had just landed at the airport and was waiting for my luggage when I heard the birds. I heard them before I saw them. I can’t tell you how many, what type, or even what their song sounded like, but stiff, white cardboard boxes punctuated the side of the baggage claim area. They were near a sign that read Lost and Found. That was the first thing I wanted to take a picture of in New Orleans—the holed boxes, the bird shadows inside, the smallish crowd trying to identify a feather, something specific to remember and hold onto.
12. My camera phone reminds me that there are 37 pictures remaining. I never do anything with the pictures. Nevertheless, the phone is overwhelmed with Vegas, Montreal, Quebec City, D.C., Chicago, Honolulu, San Antonio, Cincinnati, New York, Coney Island, Savannah, Hilton Head, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Albuquerque, Philadelphia. I’ll have to buy more memory or I’ll have to stop swimming in what’s happened. Look for land. Dry off. Look forward.
13. I mail four postcards to the same four people every time I go away. I send one postcard to myself. I remind myself what not to forget—a loud flower, a stranger I met while waiting for the bus who later bandaged my cut foot, a solo birthday limo ride, a missed flight, how I got so lost.