There is too much stuff in my magic show.
This became abundantly clear to me while sitting in my hallway this morning among the pocket watches, tiny carved boxes, ship’s gauges, hundred-year-old microscope slides, turn-of-the-century medicinal bottles, raven feathers, antique buttons, candelabras, photographs of people and animals long passed on to other adventures… and books.
Over 500 books.
I have a svelte magic show, by a common magician’s standards: it all fits in one hallway, one bedroom, and two closets. It is tidy and organized. There is no dirt, no piles of things, no boxes of forgotten junk. There is no muffin top here, no spare rabbit, no cage full of doves- only feathers and broken time pieces. Only beloved forgotten spells cast by strangers into the world that somehow ended up in my pockets, and I’ve carried them for years, listening to their wonders, and wondering about their secrets. At night, when the noise of traffic keeps me awake, I try to tune my ear to a deeper place, to the restless, unending whispering of these objects. Each has a pulse, a story that goes on.
This might be sounding a bit creepy at this point, so let me clarify: I suffer from no terrible Gollum-like lust for what was. Neither am I guarding horcruxes while my actual soul withers and splits. I am just a poet. And a poet is a magician of words… an intermediary, a translator, an amplifier, a caretaker of stories. Look at all the stories!
But every few years the same thing happens, no matter how small a space I live in, not matter how much I maintain my resolve to not accumulate… I end up losing my equilibrium. I’m the raccoon that is caught in a nail trap because I won’t let go of the shiny object in my fist. I am, as George Carlin once joked, enslaved to my boxes. I work so I can pay for a box to put my boxes in, which are full of more boxes. And books are like the tesseract of boxes… they are boxes that contain hundreds of very thin, double-sided boxes, with ink printed in box shapes, and should you be able understand the spells written in these boxes, suddenly each produces an entire heretofore unknown reality… right into your brain… as if you experienced it yourself. And in a sense, you did, because you add your own images, your own particular interpretation of what you find there, and it stays with you, and over time you might pass it on by giving the book away, or telling the story to someone else, or dropping a clever reference about Voldemort or Tolkein into your blog post… a wink wink, nudge nudge to others who have been in the box and know the status of the cat.
Books are the deepest sorcery that exists. Do I need to mention the old/new testaments? torah? qur’an? confucian analects? bhagavad gita? book of mormon? Okay, just checking.
So here is the question: what does a magician keep? What does a poet let go of? As the world continues its shift to convert so much of what was physical into encoded (smaller) versions of the physical, we may be reducing the visible cache, but we are increasing the volume to an ear-splitting level. And what is the value of thingness?
I don’t keep these objects because of their monetary value. Most of them are monetarily valueless. I took 30 music Cd’s to Amoeba yesterday and was offered $16 cash or $32 in trade. If I sell off even 1/5th of these books at Green Apple, I might get $50 if I’m lucky. These are not financial investments, they are the currency of dreams, and the record of a silent, collective experience that our living memories simply don’t have room for. We press the “clear cache” on these events more and more quickly as the decades gain thrust… because we have to.
But physical reminders are necessary. This 1980 LIFE magazine contains a hopeful report on thousands of people surviving cancer. As of 2007, the number was 11.7 million… in the United States alone. This TIME magazine shows a woman holding her mother in floodwaters after hurricane Katrina. This information is all over the web, but the context in time has been lost. What these events meant when they happened is a subtler understanding that comes from reading what’s around the articles in these magazines… advertisements for the boxy 1980 Dodge Aries K with the tag line “America’s not going to be pushed around anymore,” is laughable and sad when you consider the Hummers and Suburbans and Ford F150 fiberglass leviathans that cars ballooned into by the 2000’s. In 2005, photographs of bodies floating in Louisiana’s floodwaters are surrounded by mostly pharmaceutical ads promising restful sleep, pain-free diabetes monitoring, effort-free weight loss, and cholesterol-lowering drugs.
The physicality of objects is a tangible memory of what people were in a place and time. What they felt, and what was important to them, is not so much in the information, but in how they put it together, and what they included and excluded, and even more so, what they considered a “given”. In a pocketwatch, you see precious metals, intricate gears, jewels and flywheels and springs that must be cared for in order to work together as a precise mechanism. If you owned a pocketwatch, you owned not only an object of necessity and utility, but one of moveable wealth, and you quite literally, kept time in your pocket. Nothing about this can really be understood by the idea of a pocketwatch. You have to carry it around, remember to wind it, attach is safely to your button with a fob, have it accessible at any moment. Without it, you don’t know what time it is. The world will move on without you.
But even a magician doesn’t have room in her hat for everything. Sometimes, it’s time to reach in there and sort the bunnies from the dust. Sometimes the urge to purge becomes overwhelming and indiscriminate. I fantasized this morning about carrying down every object I owned by armfuls and leaving it all out on the street, and watching people carry it all off to new life and purpose. But screw that, I’m not a neo-hippie. If I want to go to extremes I’ll dye my hair again.
What I do in this situation is ask myself… what kind of magician am I… and what do I really need to accomplish that? I think a little bit of hunger is in order. I don’t want to live inside a curiosity cabinet, I am a curiosity cabinet, and the feeling of being beloved is much more like light than like money. If I pass on some of these books, I pass on the stories that live inside them, but like the sunlight that bounces off the moon, someone else can experience the illumination, without any diminishing of mine.
All that said, there are certain objects that no sane person would have produced in the first place, let alone used, and cherished and hauled around from place to place.
That is why I am so not getting rid of this clock.